Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on April 24, 2015 at 6:00 AM, updated April 25, 2015 at 1:55 PM
TRENTON — The New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics recently filed a formal ethics complaint against a former Cumberland County first assistant prosecutor — who is currently a partner at a Camden County law firm — for allegedly attempting to violate the rules of professional conduct while representing a Cherry Hill-based company, National Freight Industries, in a civil lawsuit.
Yaron Helmer — who served as Cumberland County first assistant prosecutor from 1987 to 1989 and is now a partner at the Haddon Heights-based law firm Helmer, Conley and Kasselman — allegedly threatened criminal charges against a company in order to obtain “an improper advantage” in a civil case he was representing on behalf of NFI — a distribution company, according to the complaint issued last month by the Office of Attorney Ethics Supreme Court of New Jersey in Trenton.
James P. Lynch, an attorney at Helmer, Conley and Kasselman, said on behalf of Helmer that he “vigorously denies any wrongdoing on his part.”
“We’ve been 100 percent cooperative with the Office of Attorney Ethics,” Lynch said. “We respectfully, but strongly disagree with the decision to charge in this matter … We look forward to his ultimate vindication.”
Lynch said the law firm is currently preparing a response to the complaint that he said would be filed in a “timely manner.”
According to official court documents, Helmer allegedly “pressed” two Cumberland County assistant prosecutors — David Branco and G. Harrison Walters — to seek criminal charges in the civil case that NFI had been pursuing since May 2008 against a Delaware-based bottled water company, Trident LLC. NFI alleged that Trident conspired to commit fraud by issuing a number of bad checks.
Branco currently works at Helmer, Conley and Kasselman, according to the firm’s website.
Walters is no longer employed at the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office.
NFI had sought to obtain criminal charges against Trident but was ultimately denied by Cumberland County Assistant Prosecutor Charles Wettstein in September 2008. That’s when NFI hired Helmer to “act as middleman” to “persuade” the two county assistant prosecutor’s to take criminal action against Trident and its leaders: James Land and Michael Pessiki, according to the complaint.
Trident had paid NFI more than $1 million over seven months until bouncing a $100,000 check in March 2008, according to court documents.
In exchange for his representation, NFI agreed to pay Helmer a one-time $10,000 retainer, according to court documents. In the event NFI received restitution from Trident in a criminal proceeding, NFI agreed to pay Helmer an additional 20 percent of the first $500,000 collected as restitution, plus 15 percent of any amount in excess of $500,000.
The OAE alleges that Helmer’s actions to utilize the criminal process on behalf of NFI for his own financial benefit “would have impacted the administration of justice in the criminal, civil and bankruptcy cases,” according to the complaint, signed by OAE Director Charles Centinaro.
In May 2009, Helmer, representatives from NFI and the two county assistant prosecutors met to discuss the bad checks that Trident had allegedly sent to NFI. According to the complaint, Walters described that “a swift resolution to NFI’s problem was planned” at the meeting.
The plan, according to court documents, involved a sealed indictment, the arrest of Land and Pessiki on warrants with high bail after the indictment was unsealed with the bail money to be used as restitution.
In addition, the state alleges that Helmer violated the rules of professional conduct when, on June 11, 2009, he allegedly emailed Walters a draft of a criminal indictment against Trident and its leaders as well as the counts he felt should be included, according to court documents.
Roughly a week later, Walters presented the indictment to a grand jury that allegedly followed the outlined Helmer had emailed him and used Helmer as his sole witness, the complaint says.
According to court documents, Land’s attorney, Carl Poplar, believed the state’s grand jury presentation was “fundamentally wrong.” In December 2009, during a motion to dismiss the indictment on behalf of his client, Poplar described Helmer as “a lawyer not experienced or familiar with civil litigation” and was hired by NFI “to help them pursue criminal charges … and navigate through the criminal justice system.”
I addition, Poplar said Helmer testified “without any direct knowledge, understanding or appreciation of the civil transactions” and “testified without giving attribution to any source of information he provided, and without offering any exhibits,” according to the complaint.
The OAE alleges Helmer’s testimony before a grand jury violated the rules of professional conduct and ethics.
On July 17, 2009, a grand jury returned an indictment against Trident, Pessiki and Land. Walters eventually sought to have Pessiki and Land arrested.
The OAE claims that Helmer’s “participation in influencing Branco and Walters to seek high bail, to have the indictments sealed and to attempt to arrest Land and Pessiki” violated the rules of professional conduct and ethics.
Land and Pessiki were arraigned on the alleged bad check charges in September 2009.
However, in a September 2010 letter, the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office advised all parties involved that it ultimately felt the way the matter was presented to the grand jury was “not proper” and would not be “sanctioned or condoned” by Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McCrae.
Poplar would not comment on the matter.
Originally Posted @