(Reuters) - With former Willkie Farr & Gallagher partner Keila Ravelo headed for trial next month on charges that she created sham litigation services businesses in order to defraud her partners and clients of nearly $8 million, it looks like Ravelo’s onetime pal, class action lawyer Gary Friedman, may be called upon to testify about the scandal that has already uprooted his career.
Friedman was once a player in the plaintiffs’ antitrust bar, assisting lead counsel in a multibillion-dollar case against Visa and MasterCard and slated, along with his co-counsel, for a $75 million payday in his own parallel class action against American Express. That’s all now part of the wreckage of his disastrous friendship with Ravelo, whom he met decades ago when both were young lawyers at Sidley Austin.
After Ravelo and her husband, Melvin Feliz, were charged in 2014, Willkie discovered communications from Friedman in Ravelo’s files. Subsequent investigation revealed that Friedman had disclosed confidential information from the American Express case to Ravelo, who was one of MasterCard’s defense lawyers in the parallel class action.
Friedman insisted he had not compromised his clients’ interests, but the judge overseeing the Amex settlement said Friedman failed his clients when he disclosed confidential information to Ravelo. The judge rejected the proposed deal and bounced Friedman off of the case. Meanwhile, objectors to a $7.25 billion settlement in the multidistrict litigation against Visa and MasterCard claimed Friedman's disclosures hopelessly tainted that case as well. They even obtained a declaration from Ravelo that said she relied on Friedman’s improper revelations in advising MasterCard. (The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed approval of the Visa/MasterCard settlement for unrelated reasons in 2016.)
The improper disclosures killed Friedman’s business. In the past year and a half, his biggest case has been a long-shot objection to the Trump University class action settlement.
Instead of litigating, he has spent most of his time writing a book he describes as “a deeply personal memoir” and “a meditation on friendship and betrayal.” It’s a book, in other words, about Friedman’s relationship with Ravelo. And her lead defense lawyers, Steven Sadow of Schulten Ward Turner & Weiss and Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, want to see it before her trial, which is scheduled to begin on Oct. 10. In August, they subpoenaed Friedman’s manuscript, among other documents.
In a brief filed this week, Friedman asked U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty of Newark to quash the subpoena. The brief, which was first reported by Law.com, argued that Friedman is entitled to the same First Amendment protection as a journalist since his book features investigative reporting and is intended for a broad audience. Friedman said he’s afraid that if Ravelo and her team get hold of his manuscript, they will try to block its publication by threatening prospective publishers with litigation. That would chill his First Amendment rights, Friedman said.
Ravelo counsel Sadow said in an email that his side intends “no effort whatsoever … to stop the publication of Friedman’s fictional manuscript. Legal recourse would be post-publication, if it defames or libels her.”
But more interesting to me than the dispute over whether Ravelo can get an early look at Friedman’s book is the implication in Friedman’s filings, Sadow’s response and a previous motion by New Jersey federal prosecutors that Friedman will be called as a witness in Ravelo’s trial.
Friedman believes his old friend is going to try to pin him with responsibility for the fraud she is accused of, according to his brief. Ravelo “has already staked out an unmistakably hostile position towards Friedman,” his brief said. “By all appearances, she is preparing to fabricate a story under which Friedman conspired with (Ravelo’s husband) to commit fraud, if not other felonies.”
Sadow implicitly acknowledged that Ravelo’s team expects Friedman to testify for the government. The only reason Ravelo’s lawyers subpoenaed Friedman’s manuscript, he said in an email, is to impeach Friedman as a witness. The book “may well contain self-serving statements by Friedman which are inconsistent with or contradict the actual facts, and thus can be used to challenge his credibility and reliability.”
Prosecutors seem to be bracing for Ravelo’s lawyers to shift blame to Friedman. In an omnibus pretrial motion in June, they asked Judge McNulty to bar Ravelo from presenting “any allegation that Gary Friedman, a plaintiffs’ lawyer in the multidistrict litigation against major credit card companies, acted improperly in the course of that multi-district litigation.”
In response, Ravelo’s lawyers said the prosecutors' request was improper, both because the government had characterized Friedman as a possible co-conspirator when it sought a warrant to search Ravelo’s cellphone and because Friedman was a customer of the supposedly fraudulent litigation support companies run by Ravelo’s husband.
“Evidence about Friedman’s relationship with Ms. Ravelo and, more significantly, with (her husband) Melvin Feliz – the mastermind of the alleged scheme – is … crucial to understanding the government’s charges and Ms. Ravelo’s lack of culpability, knowledge or involvement,” the Ravelo brief said. (Judge McNulty denied the government’s omnibus motion but said it could be refiled.)
In an interview Thursday, Friedman said he does not know for sure whether prosecutors plan to call him as a witness against Ravelo. He said he’s not worried about testifying. “It sounds like bravado to say I’m indifferent but I don’t have a dog in this hunt,” Friedman told me. “If I’m called, I’ll go up and tell the truth.”