An attorney accused of spoon-feeding answers to unqualified robo-witnesses has failed to limit the scope of her deposition about her actions in a foreclosure case.
Erin Prete of Gasdick Stanton Early in Orlando is accused of improperly coaching employees of Atlanta-based mortgage servicer Ocwen Financial Corp. about their testimony against Florida homeowners.
“The who, what, where and when can be inquired into, but not the why,” Prete’s attorney, Michael Colgan of the Tampa office of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, argued at a hearing Tuesday in Fort Pierce.
Prete’s accuser is foreclosure defense attorney Thomas Ice, representing homeowners Thomas and Jeanette Rolle in the foreclosure suit brought by Ocwen and lender Deutsche Bank National Trust Co.
Prete, then with Quintairos Prieto Wood & Boyer, was Ocwen’s lawyer when her office appeared to have inadvertently provided Ice Legal with a batch of internal emails during discovery.
The emails included an extensive list of questions and answers about mortgage document handling for Ocwen witnesses and a flow chart mapping steps in Ocwen’s so-called boarding process for receiving new loans for servicing. Prete instructed attorneys preparing for trial to ensure witnesses received the documents.
“This was the smoking gun,” Ice told the Daily Business Review. “That’s why they’re so concerned. That’s why they’re trying to put a lid on it.”
His accusation against Prete put him and his Royal Palm Beach firm at the center of the case after Deutsche Bank and Ocwen moved to disqualify Ice Legal as defense counsel.
The lender’s attorneys are Colgan and Owen Sokolof of the West Palm Beach office of Clarfield Okon Salomone & Pincus. They requested that all pleadings and exhibits about the alleged coaching be filed under seal while the court determines whether Ice released privileged information.
In an emergency motion filed the evening before Tuesday’s hearing, they also asked St. Lucie Circuit Judge William Roby for a protective order to limit the scope of deposition questions directed at Prete and Clarfield Verhonda Williams, who acknowledged Ice notified her of the inadvertent disclosure.
Prete is the former attorney of record for Ocwen, and Williams still represents the lenders. Under those circumstances, Colgan argued attorney-client privilege were in play.
“This is a dangerous slope to venture down,” he said, adding he was “speaking carefully” because “the press had indicated an interest.”
Roby denied the request to limit the scope of the attorney depositions but didn’t rule on the confidentiality of the email documents.
“I am really concerned about a waiver of this alleged privilege because it wasn’t important enough to bring up until the day of trial,” the judge said.
Ice Legal attorney Amanda Lundergan told the judge it was unclear whether the disclosure was inadvertent or part of a deliberate strategy in a seven-year foreclosure case that was dismissed and refiled.
In the meantime, it will be up to other courts to decide whether or not to allow Ice Legal to bring up Prete’s alleged wrongdoing during other foreclosure trials involving Ocwen.
No date has been set for the hearing on the motion to disqualify Ice Legal as defense counsel for the Rolles.
Ice contends neither of the firms representing the lender and servicer claimed privilege until the Daily Business Review published an article about the email contents May 19.
He said he asked Quintairos Prieto attorneys, who are no longer handling the litigation, and the current opposing counsel in the Rolle case, Clarfield Okon, whether they were asserting privileged client information but received no response.
Prete, who left Quintairos Prieto for Gasdick Stanton in Orlando, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
A Nov. 26, 2013, email from her said: “I have been working with Ocwen on ensuring their witnesses have the information necessary to testify to the boarding process at Ocwen. I received confirmation today that the witnesses have been provided this information.”
Prete added: “Please ensure to incorporate questions regarding the boarding process into your trial prep and speak with the witness in advance of trial to ensure they are properly prepared to testify to the same. It may be best to send Book 2 in all emails to the witnesses to ensure they are familiar with the process in case they have inadvertently not been provided with this information.”
Book 2 referred to internal policies on taking new accounts.
Ice said her emails indicated an attempt to ensure testimony by Ocwen employees on mortgage transfers and so-called document boarding would overcome hearsay objections.
Business records, like loan documents, are considered hearsay and inadmissible unless lenders can meet four criteria that prove they verified the information.
“I’ve been saying for five years they’ve been coaching the witnesses,” Ice said. “It’s fairly evident from sitting through trial. They all say the same thing.”
On the deposition questioning, Colgan told Roby, “We do not want a fishing expedition here. … These are lawyers. They’re officers of the court.”
Comment: that last line kills me!!! “These are lawyers. They’re officers of the court” . This judge is really in the ether. There isn’t one foreclosure attorney that doesn’t leave his ethics at the door. Oh wait! That original guy from Litchfield Cavo who quit the case after I cornered him in the elevator. He left to practice family law, instead of stealing families’ homes.