A confidential source working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration made a recorded call in August 2013 to a Bowie-based attorney about trying to straighten out business documents. Federal authorities were zeroing on a drug trafficking organization that was moving money through the informant's business.
"Not on the phone. You know I'm your attorney. We're not gonna have this conversation on the phone," said the attorney, Edward Leyden, according to a transcript of the call contained in a search warrant.
"Just try to find Ken, and we can discuss it," the government's source said.
"Ken" referred to attorney Kenneth Ravenell, who along with Leyden represented marijuana kingpin and nightclub impresario Richard Byrd, authorities wrote in the warrant. Within the next year, the DEA and IRS raided both Ravenell and Leyden's law offices.
Seven years later, a jury convicted Ravenell of money laundering and the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission is seeking to suspend his law license. Leyden wasn't charged and remains a lawyer in good standing.
The long-running investigation allowed federal authorities to take a rare and close look at the work of attorneys, which usually is considered privileged and not subject to scrutiny. Many local attorneys were rankled by the federal government's approach.
Investigative tactics such as raiding law firms, listening in on meetings and scrutinizing law firm financials are not typical and require from the Justice Department in Washington. Leyden, the tax attorney whose office was raided, was recorded on multiple occasions before the raid, the court documents show.
He referred questions to his attorney, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Before Ravenell, another attorney was convicted as part of the federal investigation of Byrd. Houston-based James Bowie II was charged with Byrd in 2014. He received two years in prison after admitting that, among other things, he helped Byrd launder $180,000 by creating bank accounts in his and his sister's names.
Federal agents also a questioned Greenbelt-based defense attorney Michael E. Lawlor, who was Byrd's attorney when he pleaded guilty in 2017, according to an internal DEA document that was part of a trove of investigative records unsealed on the first day of Ravenell's trial.
The DEA interviewed Lawlor in 2019 after agents learned he had provided sensitive discovery materials from Byrd's case to Ravenell and his attorney at the time, Joshua Treem. Attorneys in the case were prohibited from sharing such documents with anyone but their client.
"Lawlor stated that he 'f----- up' by turning the discovery over to Treem and that he knew it was improper," DEA agents wrote in a summary of the interview. "Lawlor explained that he thought he was doing them a 'professional courtesy.'"
But prosecutors did not charge Lawlor, who declined to comment, and he continues to defend clients in federal court.
Ravenell's former law firm, Murphy Falcon and Murphy, also attracted scrutiny. Prosecutors introduced ledgers from the firm at Ravenell's trial that showed money from Byrd moving through various accounts. But prosecutors made no allegations of wrongdoing by its other members and noted in their rebuttal closing arguments that the case made no claims of impropriety against the prominent Baltimore firm.
At the trial, prosecutors introduced little direct evidence beyond the word of the drug dealers, and jurors seemed to doubt Ravenell was as closely involved in the drug organization as Byrd claimed: They acquitted him of conspiracy charges in the indictment involving racketeering and drugs.
Local attorneys and law professors who watched the case argued that when it came to Treem, Ravenell's attorney, prosecutors should have used their discretion to also not charge him.
Treem was charged in 2020 with obstruction of justice, for going to meet with Byrd as part of his representation of Ravenell. Treem came with a list of statements absolving Ravenell of wrongdoing, and wanted Byrd to sign them. Unbeknown to Treem, Byrd had agreed to record the meeting for the government.
Treem's attorneys called the recording a shocking intrusion into the work of defense attorneys, but the judge overseeing the case allowed the evidence to stand.
In the recorded meeting, Byrd told Treem that Ravenell knew about the criminal enterprise "from A to Z," but he was willing to testify to the contrary. Treem told Byrd he wouldn't allow him to lie on the stand. And Treem also refused to destroy evidence, as suggested by Byrd.
But months later he wrote a letter to a judge, saying that Byrd was trying to extort Ravenell. In that letter, prosecutors say, Treem falsely stated Byrd had absolved Ravenell. On the witness stand, Treem said that statement was true, and that he had no obligation to report Byrd's reversal if it would hurt Ravenell, his client.
University of Baltimore law professor Amy Dillard said it appeared federal prosecutors targeted Treem.
"There are lot of places to put time and attention, and putting time and attention there often smacks of it being personal, whether it is or isn't," Dillard said. "For example, has every person who's been involved in any sort of insider trading been investigated with this kind of zeal? I think that frustrates people."
She also questioned whether prosecutors look at the conduct of fellow prosecutors accused of misconduct or other violations in the same way they appear willing to look at that of defense attorneys.
"What happens in cases where the court has found prosecutorial misconduct - does anyone file a bar complaint? Are charges brought against those prosecutors? Of course not," Dillard said. "It feels like a gentlemen's code in the world of lawyering where you don't criticize prosecutors in that way."
Other legal experts disagreed. The U.S. attorney's office lined up several who were prepared to support their case. One was Norman L. Smith, who represents attorneys before the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission and has served as a specially appointed prosecutor. In a summary of his expected testimony, he said what Treem did was "highly unusual" and violated several rules of professional conduct.
"While neither Ravenell nor his lawyer Treem had any obligation or duty to provide information to the government or to the court, once Treem chose to speak, by submitting a voluntary letter to the Court, [one of the rules of conduct] commands that he must not lie," the summary of Smith's testimony reads.
Ultimately, the judge overseeing the case said he would not allow expert testimony from either side.
All of the lawyers scrutinized in the investigation could face investigations by the Attorney Grievance Commission, experts said. That body does not discuss investigations until it has brought a case for the Maryland Court of Appeals to consider.
While unusual, Ravenell's case is not the first of its kind brought by federal prosecutors in Maryland. Their office won a conviction in 2017 against Philadelphia-based attorney Michael Farrell for aiding a Baltimore-based drug trafficking organization.
Farrell was accused of writing checks and disbursing cash from drug proceeds to pay for legal representation of grand jury witnesses and individuals under investigation in connection with the activities of a Baltimore drug organization, including payments to two Baltimore-area attorneys, prosecutors said. Records show one of those attorneys was Joseph Murtha, who had been told by his client about Farrell's conduct and notified the U.S. attorney's office.
"My client ended up wearing a wire, going to Philadelphia, and Mr. Farrell gave him $10,000 and talked about what he wanted him to do to obstruct justice," Murtha said.
Murtha said he was surprised that federal investigators wanted to investigate another attorney, but he said they were already on Farrell's trail and that Farrell's conduct was clearly wrong.
"When you're in a position where you cross the line by trying to influence statements to make false statements or engage in obstruction of justice, it's not acceptable, and it not only interferes with the system of justice, but it also has an adverse effect on the very desperate defendants who are almost willing to do anything," Murtha said.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers came to Farrell's aid in his appeal, arguing that prosecutors were wrong to say the jury could convict Farrell of receiving drug money on the theory of "willful blindness," or knowing the money was likely drug proceeds but looking the other way.
It's a claim Ravenell's attorneys could make in appealing his conviction, according to Rebecca LeGrand, who was counsel for one of Ravenell's co-defendants.
"Criminal defendants are constitutionally entitled to loyalty from their attorneys, and thus cannot be subjected to open suspicion from, and constant investigation by, the very individuals who are supposed to zealously represent their interests in a conflict-free manner," the defense lawyers association wrote in an amicus brief in Farrell's case.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument, saying there was ample evidence Farrell knew the funds came from drug proceeds.
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.