CHICAGO – One of the attorneys representing a Chicagoland lawyer named in a four-year-old Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) complaint said April 29 that his client “might be a jerk … but he’s not a criminal.”
In his opening statement before a panel of the ARDC Hearing Board, Samuel J. Manella said that the sexual harassment allegations lodged against his client, Paul M. Weiss, came from women “seeking financial gain” or former employees with “an axe to grind.”
Minutes earlier, however, Wendy Muchman, who made the opening statement on behalf of the administrator, had urged the panel not to fall prey to the “conspiracy” theory that Weiss’ legal team would present and recommend he be disbarred.
Telling members of the Hearing Board panel that they are the sole judges of the witnesses’ credibility, Muchman offered a hypothetical question to bolster her case: why would these women subject themselves to three-hour depositions and agree to take the stand “if it wasn’t the truth?”
The opening statements made by Manella and Muchman came on the first of five days of hearings scheduled in Weiss’ disciplinary proceeding. Before the hearings come to a close, both sides are expected to call several witnesses and present evidence to further argue their positions.
The hearings stem from a complaint the ARDC filed against Weiss in December 2008.
The complaint, which was later amended, alleges that Weiss’ actions toward five female employees, a neighbor and a woman on the street brought the legal profession into disrepute. It includes claims of assault, battery, phone harassment, public indecency and disorderly conduct.
The misconduct alleged in the complaint occurred between 2000 and 2010, during which time Weiss practiced law at the Chicago law firm of Freed & Weiss. He now works at Complex Litigation Group in Highland Park.
Weiss has also worked on some class actions in Madison and St. Clair counties with the Lakin Law Firm, as well as St. Louis attorney Richard Burke and Belleville attorney Kevin Hoerner.
At the start of her opening statement, Muchman apologized to the Hearing Board for some of the graphic and profane language she would use to describe the situations that spurred the complaint.
Among other allegations, Muchman told the panel that Weiss made inappropriate phone calls to some of his female employees and made lewd comments, such as asking one woman what she was wearing, telling another he thought of her while having sex with his wife and asking another employee to wear lower-cut shirts.
Muchman also told the panel that some of these women allege that Weiss inappropriately touched them and exposed himself to them.
In addition, the ARDC complaint includes allegations made by Weiss’ former neighbor, who testified today that he exposed himself to her, and a woman who claims that Weiss exposed himself to her after stopping her near a train station to see if she was looking for a job cleaning houses.
“It’s not every day that an Illinois attorney exposes himself to a member of the community peacefully walking to work,” Muchman said of the allegations included in Count VI of the complaint.
In anticipation of the possibility that Weiss’ legal team would question why some of these women didn’t bring their concerns to law firm staff, law enforcement officials or the ARDC, Muchman told the panel that they were scared to come forward out of the fear of losing their jobs or facing retaliation.
Dubbing the disciplinary complaint against his client as “a really, really strange case,” Manella told the panel that he welcomed the opportunity to clear his client’s name after the four-year lapse since the complaint was first filed.
The situation, Manella said, has had “a severe toll” on Weiss, who he noted has not been charged with any crimes in connection to the ARDC complaint.
He told the panel of the Hearing Board that the administrator hopes to make up for the lack of quality arguments it has by the quantity of counts it lodged.
Stressing that the women who would likely testify this week were either after Weiss’ money or were upset with him, Manella asked “Why would all of these people lie?” and then answered his own question by saying “ a lot of people don’t like Mr. Weiss.”
“Paul’s personality has a lot to do with it,” Manella said, adding that his client is “not a choir boy” or “warm and fuzzy.”
Weiss, he said, is a tough, demanding boss who has a short-temper and can come off as rude. Manella told the panel that most of the testimony it will hear this week will come from “Paul haters.”
On top of his client’s personality, he said Weiss’ previous disciplinary proceeding made him “a sitting target with a scarlet letter on his chest.”
Manella said his client, who he asserts is a loving husband and caring father, was disciplined more than a decade ago in connection with an allegedly harassing phone call.
Weiss, he said, had a disorder dealing with anonymous phone sex and underwent treatment as part of his prior discipline, which included a 30-day suspension from the practice of law and a two-year term of probation.
Manella said his client’s previous discipline made him “vulnerable,” noting that most of the women who made the allegations in the ARDC complaint were aware of his past proceeding.
In the situation of Weiss’ former neighbor, Manella told the panel that his client may have been nude when she walked past his door, but stressed that that was Weiss’ home and even if he was nude, did not have any inappropriate intentions.
Weiss’ other attorney, Stephanie Stewart-Page, conducted the cross-examination of her client’s former neighbor today. She grilled the woman on her recollection of her allegations and attempted to show inconsistencies between today’s testimony and a previous deposition.
While the woman answered some of Stewart-Page’s questions, she responded to others by saying she did not recall and noted that the incident happened several years ago.
Muchman was joined in representing the administrator at today’s hearing by Peter Rotskoff and Sharon Opryszek. She asked the Hearing Board to disbar Weiss.
The Hearing Board panel was comprised of Morrison attorney Lon Richey, Naperville attorney Rebecca McDade and non-lawyer William Gabbard.