Tales of former Lakin attorneys: Scandal and fee fights

Ann Maher Nov. 23, 2011, 2:59am

Tom Lakin





Class action lawsuits that have arisen from the Lakin Law Firm have run the gamut from those against K-Mart, Wal-Mart and Fashion Bug for their refusal to give change on gift cards to a current one against American Family Insurance that for 11 years has slowly progressed through Madison County Circuit Court. For two of those years, the court was unaware that its lead plaintiff, Manuel Hernandez, was dead.

The insurer is presently resisting Lakin's attempt to amend -- for a 10th time -- the complaint that alleges improper reduction of medical payments.

In some instances, the cast of lawyers that have come out of the Lakin firm have been just as colorful as the class action claims.

Two of them are serving time in federal prison -- including firm founder Tom Lakin. At least two have waged fierce court battles over fees with their former employer and others have gone on to form new partnerships.

Even before the Madison County power broker's departure – Tom Lakin left the firm as federal authorities began an investigation in 2007 that eventually led to a guilty plea on cocaine charges -- another high profile attorney was fired by the Lakin firm.

In March 2006, Gary Peel was dismissed after he was indicted on bankruptcy fraud, pornography and obstruction of justice charges. He was later convicted by a federal jury on all charges in 2007 and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois later dismissed the obstruction of justice charge, after the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2010 that either the bankruptcy fraud or obstruction of justice charge should be dropped. The Court decided that Peel had been sentenced twice for the same crime, as his verdicts for obstruction of justice and bankruptcy fraud depended on the same set of facts. His length of imprisonment, however, was not reduced.

In January of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his appeal.

Charges against Peel involved nude photographs he took of his 16 year-old sister-in-law in 1974. In 2006, Peel copied the photographs and stuck the pictures in his former wife Deborah Peel's mailbox.

He had threatened to make them public if Deborah kept trying to enforce their divorce agreement through his bankruptcy proceedings.

She called postal authorities, who called federal prosecutors.
Agents wired her and sent her to meet Gary, who proposed to swap his photos for her signature on a settlement.

Arrest and conviction followed. Peel is serving time at Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Ashland, a low security facility in northeastern Kentucky. His release date is listed as Sept. 20, 2017.

Attorney Richard Burke, who joined the firm in 1998 and litigated class actions, was fired by Lakin in 2007. Burke then opened a St. Louis office and teamed with the Chicago firm of Freed and Weiss, which also had partnered with the Lakin firm on class actions. The Lakin-Freed and Weiss team had split in 2006, resulting in suits and counter suits over fees.

In 2007, Lakin sued Freed and Weiss in Madison County, and Freed and Weiss sued Lakin in Cook County.

Burke also sued Lakin in federal court, claiming he was owed fees from class action settlements.

In a counterclaim, Lakin alleged that Burke breached his contract.

Lakin accused Burke of trying to steal clients, while Burke accused Lakin of putting his family's interests ahead of the interests of his clients.

The lawyers settled their claims in 2008.

Attorney Paul Weiss of Freed and Weiss, meanwhile, currently stands accused of sexual harassment in charges filed by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) in December 2008. The ARDC most recently amended its complaint in July, adding a new charge. Commission counsel Wendy Muchman alleged that a few weeks after the firm hired associate Angela Aneiros, Weiss asked to rub her calf or give her a massage.

Muchman wrote that Weiss asked her to show him her body or wear a bathing suit to the office.

Weiss denies the claims. He said that the latest complaint contained "made-up allegations."

Attorney Jeffrey Millar, who joined the firm in 2000 and was fired in 2008, was sued by Lakin in St. Charles County, Mo. in 2009, over the division of fees. Millar counter-sued Lakin in federal court, alleging that he would have sued first if Lakin hadn't deceived him into thinking they would negotiate.

Millar claimed Lakin fired him in violation of a contract and withheld bonuses from class action settlements.

He also claimed that Lakin changed health insurance plans to escape high medical bills for Millar's son and families of other employees.

Millar's attorney, Lynette Petruska of St. Louis, connected Millar's departure to the guilty plea of Tom Lakin.

For Brad Lakin, Denean Sturino of Chicago moved to strike the account of the scandal.

Petruska answered, "Defendants cannot seriously dispute the scandal allegations because the Lakin Law Firm scandal and its consequences are matters of public record."

She wrote that the scandal was relevant because Millar performed his obligations when he had every reason to leave.

She wrote that Lakin raised Millar's salary because the firing of class action supervisor Burke in a dispute over the scandal increased Millar's responsibility.

Sturino replied, "Plaintiff is attempting to provoke the court's and the public's negative opinion needlessly and without sufficient evidence or justification."

Millar and Lakin settled their claims earlier this year. Lakin called off his action on Feb. 14, and Millar dropped his claim in federal court at Benton on Feb. 23.

Other attorneys who have left the Lakin firm in recent times include Roy Dripps, Charles Armbruster and Michael Blotevogel, who have formed a new firm, along with John Winterscheidt, in Alton.

Another attorney whose name is still listed on the LakinChapman website is Jay Hoffman, the former Democratic state representative who will be running again for a seat being vacated by State Rep. Tom Holbrook. Hoffman has to move from Collinsville into the primarily-Belleville district.

Steve Korris contributed to this report.

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