Shelley P. Marcus, a nominee for a Superior Court judgeship, endured tough questioning last week over her role as an attorney for 21 "gifting table" clients who paid her and the Marcus Law Firm more than $50,000 for civil representation.
But she is hardly the only member of the legal community who turned up in the federal probe of the allegedly criminal scheme.
While reports initially focused on well-to-do suburban homemakers, it's now clear that a Hamden lawyer, the office manager of a New Haven law firm, the wife of a former inhouse counsel, a former Tyler, Alcorn & Cooper attorney, and other lawyers either were participants or along the way offered encouraging legal advice to participants.
Last week, the prosecution of gifting table participants Jill Platt and Donna Bello, both of Guilford, continued in U.S. District Court in Hartford before U.S. District Judge Alvin Thompson. Platt is represented by Johathan Einhorn, of New Haven, and Bello by Norman Pattis, of Bethany. The women are charged with five counts of wire fraud and tax evasion as the alleged leaders of the enterprise, which prosecutors say took in some $5 million beginning in 2008.
The gifting tables works roughly like this: New members pay $5,000 to get in on the bottom row of the table, known as the "appetizer" level. As new members join, their name moves up the table. When they get to the top, or the "dessert" level, they receive a $40,000 payout.
In 2009, when then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal began investigating the tables, Platt and Bello were told that potential liability came from a statute known as the contingent transactions act, which is typically enforced by the Department of Consumer Protection. The statute says it's "unlawful" to offer a rebate or special price based on the customer bringing in other customers or sales.
In this case, the potential legal penalties rose over time, for a small few at the top.
The government's first witness last week was Joy Bershtein, a gifting table participant and a lawyer at Hamden's Bershtein Law Center. She said the group met about 20 times a year, on Monday evenings, with each woman bringing a dish or wine.
Under cross-examination, Bershtein said she didn't advertise the fact that she was a lawyer. "I was myself. If people asked, I told them," Berstein testified.