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February 3, 2009 6:27 PM

Crowell & Moring Joins the Joe Francis Litigation Party

Posted by Brian Baxter

UPDATE: A federal judge freed Joe Francis from house arrest on February 11 and permitted him to drop The Bernhoft Law Firm for Crowell & Moring litigators Janet Levine and John Vandevelde.

The bizarre legal saga of Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis continued on Tuesday with yet another law firm--this time Crowell & Moring--representing the mail-order millionaire at the latest hearing in advance of his March trial on felony tax evasion charges.

Francis was arrested Monday on a bench warrant issued by U.S. district court judge S. James Otero after he showed up five hours late for a hearing on a motion filed by his current lawyers from The Bernhoft Law Firm, who want to drop him as a client. Francis claimed he missed the hearing's scheduled start time because he was sick with the flu.

The Am Law Daily's Los Angeles correspondent Drew Combs reports that the scene in Otero's courtroom Tuesday was a bizarre one, with six lawyers--none of whom could claim to officially represent the 35-year-old Francis in his tax case--appearing.

(As we've previously reported, Francis is no stranger to counsel substitutions, having dabbled with Jones Day, Howrey, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, and San Francisco boutique Sideman & Bancroft in the past.)

Two of those lawyers on hand Tuesday--Robert Bernhoft and Robert Barnes from The Bernhoft Firm--are attempting to withdraw from the case as counsel to Francis.

Yet since Barnes and Bernhoft are still listed as Francis's current counsel, they had to sit at the counsel table with their troublesome client, which Combs tells us made for some clearly awkward moments. The firm has been engaged in a much-publicized spat with Francis over its role in the case.

Another lawyer at the hearing, Munger, Tolles & Olson litigation partner Luis Li, told Francis last Friday that the firm could not take Francis on as a client. Combs tells us that while Li was in the courtroom, he never addressed the court.

Rounding out Francis's collection of attorneys: Associate Melissa Weinberger and another attorney from The Law Offices of Mark J. Werksman. The firm has represented Francis in other legal matters.

When Otero demanded that one lawyer stand up and represent Francis at the hearing, that lucky individual turned out to be Crowell litigation partner Janet Levine, who joined the firm in October 2008 when it absorbed her seven-lawyer litigation boutique Lightfoot Vandevelde Sadowsky Crouchley Rutherford & Levine.

Levine told Otero that she had just met Francis--whom Combs reports appeared in court wearing a dark blazer and a pair of white Converse, sans shoelaces. (Francis was jailed the day before after arriving late to Otero's court.)

Otero entered Levine's presence as a special appearance on behalf of Francis for the hearing on whether or not the eccentric entrepreneur had violated the terms of his bail by virtue of his tardiness.

At one point while Levine was addressing the court, Combs says, Francis whistled at her to get her attention. Otero later admonished Francis for trying to address the court directly. Levine did manage to mention that she didn't think Francis was a flight risk.

Otero evidently agreed, releasing Francis from custody but ordering that he be kept under house arrest and fitted for an electronic monitoring device.

Francis's next hearing--to deterimine whether The Bernhoft Firm can withdraw from the case--is scheduled for Wednesday, February 11.

Crowell's Levine told the court that she expects to know by then whether or not she can take on the matter. Otero has so far resisted letting The Bernhoft Firm withdraw until Francis obtains new counsel.

It's a process with which Francis is all too familiar.

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