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January 27, 2009 5:32 PM

Lawyers Gone Wild: Joe Francis Shakes Up His Legal Team...Again

Posted by Brian Baxter

He certainly isn't your ordinary Joe.

That's one conclusion you can arrive at when you consider the legions of lawyers Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis has employed over the past years to help him and his production company, Santa Monica-based Mantra Films, navigate an array of legal issues in various jurisdictions.

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Howrey. San Francisco litigation boutique Sideman & Bancroft.

And now, the Daily Journal in Los Angeles reports (subscription required) that Munger, Tolles & Olson may be in line to replace Francis's current counsel at The Bernhoft Law Firm, who the mail-order video peddler is slamming as "swindlers" as they exit from a federal tax case slated for trial in March.

Francis's latest courtroom foray stems from his April 2007 indictment on tax charges in Reno. The case was removed to Los Angeles a year later when Francis's lawyer at the time, Sideman's Jay Weill, a former chief of the tax division in the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco, successfully petitioned the court for a change of venue.

"I just thought Joe might be a little bit better fit in Los Angeles," says Weill, laughing. "To the L.A. folks, Joe is just Joe, and there's a million other guys just like him. Not so in Reno."

But as with Francis's previous lawyers like Pillsbury's Aaron Dyer (retained on the tax case) and Howrey's Jan Handzlik (who represented Francis on his guilty plea to a criminal contempt charge stemming from unrelated legal proceedings in Panama City, Fla.), Weill's relationship with Francis wasn't destined to be of the long-term variety.

"I had no problems with Joe," Weill says. "I've been in this business long enough to know that clients sometimes just want to go in a different direction."

That different direction led Francis to The Bernhoft Firm, whose Milwaukee-based partners Robert Bernhoft and Robert Barnes were profiled in Portfolio magazine last November, with a special focus on their push to build up their celebrity client list after getting action film star Wesley Snipes acquitted on felony tax charges in February 2008.

But the honeymoon for Bernhoft, Barnes, and Francis didn't last long. (Note: Those who've bought a Girls Gone Wild video know the pain of being billed for innumerable additional videos, despite pleas for the mailings and subsequent billings to stop . . . or so a friend told us. That's right, a friend!)

In the Daily Journal story published Monday, Francis lashed out at his former lawyers, who filed a motion to withdraw from the tax case in mid-December.

"The only reason they wanted me [as a client] was to mooch off me and open up an L.A. office," Francis told the Daily Journal. "The Bernhofts are the Paris Hilton of lawyers--just to be famous, not to do anything."

According to the Daily Journal, Francis says The Bernhoft Firm billed him $10,000 for the services of a publicist--who, coincidentally, was a former Daily Journal columnist--but did little other substantive work after taking over the case last summer.

In fact, a review of the docket in Francis's tax case shows an abundance of motions to allow Francis to travel--including a particularly juicy one from mid-September comparing Francis's need to visit Mexico to film Girls Gone Wild infomercials as analogous to Michael Moore appearing in his documentaries--but a noticeable dearth of pretrial discovery motions. (The motion was denied.)

Some lawyers familiar with the Francis case who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly say that the repeated motions to modify conditions of Francis's release by The Bernhoft Firm to U.S. district court judge S. James Otero--considered to be a tough, no-nonsense type--were tone deaf to their audience.

For their part, Bernhoft and Barnes, who were not immediately available for comment, have slammed the Daily Journal story as a "defamatory hit job." The flack they supposedly hired, Ross Johnson, has also publicly denied being paid by Francis.

Some former Francis lawyers such as Weill have already moved on.

"It would have been an interesting trial," Weill says. "Joe's an interesting guy, but right now I'm out of the game."

Also not in the game: Jones Day. Though a litigation partner for the firm, Frederick Friedman, did appear before Otero in early January and stated that Jones Day was conducting a conflicts check to see if it could take on the matter, the firm apparently has decided not to do so.

Jones Day litigation partner Brian O'Neill confirmed that the firm has chosen not to represent Francis, but declined to elaborate. (As an aside, O'Neill also praised Bernhoft, saying that a fellow Jones Day partner saw Bernhoft speak at a criminal law conference in Aspen, Colo., several weeks ago, noting that he had an "impressive" knowledge of tax law.)

Francis also approached Howrey's Handzlik about representing him in the tax case.

And while the Daily Journal reported that Munger Tolles litigation partners Brad Brian and Luis Li are poised to take over the tax case, Brian denied as much when contacted by The Am Law Daily on Tuesday afternoon.

The firm has not yet made a decision on whether it will represent Francis, Brian says. Should a new counsel appointment be made, Francis is seeking to have his trial postponed until the fall--ostensibly to give his new lawyers more time to prepare.

Or maybe he wants to keep his calendar clear for spring break.

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