Va. court upholds suspension for lawyer in shipwreck gold disputes

REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
  • Richard Robol was suspended for four years by a state bar board
  • Discipline followed litigation over treasure-hunting former client's shipwreck haul

(Reuters) - The Supreme Court of Virginia in a Thursday ruling upheld a state bar board's four year-suspension of an attorney who a federal court said concealed inventories of gold discovered by his ex-client in a shipwreck.

The opinion by Virginia Justice William Mims rejected Richard Robol's argument that his "associate" status with the state bar made him a "non-lawyer" not subject to discipline after he was found to have violated Ohio state attorney conduct rules.

Robol's former client Thomas "Tommy" G. Thompson and Thompson's companies in 1988 located the 1857 shipwreck of the SS Central America, according to the opinion. Thompson's team recovered "millions" worth of gold from California mines that had been on the vessel, the opinion said.

The gold discovery spurred multiple legal fights in Ohio and Virginia, according to the opinion. It said these included several requests for inventories of the recovered treasure.

An Ohio district court hearing a lawsuit against Thompson from one of the recovery expedition's investors sanctioned Robol in 2013, the opinion said. Robol was ordered to pay nearly$225,000 for deceiving the court by failing to produce original inventories of the treasure.

The opinion said Robol had argued that he had relied on his client's assertions that all of the relevant documents had been produced in the case, a premise the Ohio federal court had found "unreasonable." The 6th Circuit upheld the lower court's order.

In 2019, the Supreme Court of Ohio accepted Robol’s application for retirement or resignation with disciplinary action pending, according to Thursday's filing, which said he had ceased representing Thompson in 2014.

It said the Virginia State Bar Second District Subcommittee in 2020 certified charges of misconduct against Robol and after a two-day hearing, found he violated Ohio's professional conduct rules. He was later suspended.

Robol said he was "disappointed" by the Supreme Court's Thursday decision, but glad he brought the appeal.

"If what I've been through and what others involved in this situation with the SS Central America have been through leads to improving our system of justice, then it will be worthwhile," he said of the long-running litigation.

Attorneys for the Virginia State Bar did not respond to request for comment.

The case is Richard Thomas Robol v. Virginia State Bar, Supreme Court of Virginia, Record No. 210054

For Robol: Richard Thomas Robol, Pro se.

For the Virginia State Bar: Robert B. McEntee, III, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, on brief)

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Ex-treasure hunter kept in U.S. jail over gold found in shipwreck

Reporting by Chinekwu Osakwe

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Chinekwu Osakwe covers legal industry news with a focus on midsize law firms. Reach her at Chinekwu.osakwe@thomsonreuters.com.