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June 14, 2010 9:47 PM

Ninth Circuit Reinstates Criminal Election Law Charges Against Litigator O'Donnell

Posted by Drew Combs

During an interview with The American Lawyer earlier this year, attorney Pierce O’Donnell described as part of his "past" two criminal counts brought against him for allegedly violating federal election laws and dismissed last year by a district court judge. On Monday, a federal appeals court made those charges a part of O'Donnell's future.

Am Law Daily sibling publication The National Law Journal reports that--in a major setback for the litigator who rose to prominence with a series of high-profile entertainment industry cases in the 1990s--the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has reinstated charges against O'Donnell based on allegations that he reimbursed contributions made by law firm employees and others to John Edwards’s 2004 presidential campaign. 

Last year, federal district court judge S. James Otero held that the relevant federal statute applied only to contributions made under a false name, in part relying on the fact that language of the law in question did not include the words “conduit” or “indirect.”

But the Ninth Circuit ruled that Otero's interpretation wasn't based on common sense, according to the National Law Journal article.  "We hold that this law prohibits a person from providing money to others to donate to a candidate for federal office in their own names, when in reality they are merely 'straw donors,” the three-judge appellate panel stated.

In recent months, court rulings have mainly been cause for O’Donnell to celebrate--whether as a defendant or an attorney. First came Otero's dismissal last June of two of the three criminal counts O'Donnell faced in connection with the Edwards contributions.

Five months later, O'Donnell----one of a group of plaintiffs attorneys who sued the federal government over damage suffered by New Orleans neighborhoods in the wake of Hurricane Katrina--was triumphant when a federal judge held that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was liable for flood damage because of its failure to properly maintain the navigational canal that snakes through the city.

For his leading role in the case, which included compiling a 150-page white paper that analyzed the relevant engineering and scientific issues, O’Donnell was selected as litigator of week by The Am Law Litigation Daily. Last year, O’Donnell, with cocounsel Jennifer Keller of Keller Rackauckas, also won a $350 million judgment for Auerbach Acquisition Associates, which accused a Nashville businessman of scheming to deny it a majority stake in an electronic payment processing company.

Given this string of triumphs, it’s not surprising that when O’Donnell--whose current home base is the five-attorney O'Donnell & Associates in downtown Los Angeles--sat down to talk with The American Lawyer magazine for a profile that appeared in the Spring 2010 Litigation Supplement, he was brimming with confidence that his personal legal challenges were behind him. With Monday's ruling, one still lies ahead.

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