Tuesday, November 19, 2002
Malibu Attorney Birenbaum Pleads No Contest, Agrees to Repay Clients
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Malibu attorney Sam Birenbaum pled no contest yesterday to two felony counts of grand theft by embezzlement from former clients and agreed to return more than $100,000 within the next 90 days.
Under a plea agreement entered as the case was about to go to trial, Birenbaum will face probation—a condition of which would be up to a year in jail—if he pays restitution on time. Otherwise, under the order entered by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Fahey, Birenbaum could face up to four years, eight months in state prison.
Birenbaum, 53, also will be liable for interest on the money from the time he is deemed to have taken it from the three clients, a North Hollywood couple and a woman from Sweden, plus reasonable attorney fees. The interest and fee payments will be a condition of probation and need not be paid by the Feb. 18 deadline, when he is to be sentenced.
He pled to two counts of violating Penal Code Sec. 487(a) and admitted a special allegation under Sec. 12022.6(a)(1) that the amount taken exceeded $50,000.
Birenbaum told Fahey he intended to resign immediately from the State Bar. He has been on forced inactive status since June 6. A State Bar trial against Birenbaum is scheduled for February on additional charges, but the matter will be taken off calendar when he resigns, State Bar investigator Susan Arroyo said.
“Hopefully, this matter will bring some conclusion to the victims,” Arroyo said.
Deputy District Attorney William Penzin called the plea bargain a “good disposition” because the victims would get their money back.
“If we send him to prison all the victims can get is a civil judgment,” Penzin said.
The State Bar and the District Attorney’s Office have been working closely on attorney misconduct cases since Steve Cooley took office and established a new Justice System Integrity Division, Penzin said. He added that there are currently 10 matters in the office against attorneys.
“Right now there’s just an open flow of information back and forth,” Penzin said. “The State Bar is referring more cases to us. We have more than five times the caseload than it was under the previous administration.”
Birenbaum, who has been a prominent presence in Malibu politics and twice ran for Malibu city council, was charged with stealing $100,000 from one client and $22,500 from the other two. He will be able to keep 40 percent of the smaller amount as his retainer.
He said he already has begun to pay the one client, and that the couple did not expect to be paid directly, but expected that he would pay their physician.
Penzin and Birenbaum’s attorney, Encino criminal defense lawyer Mark Shapiro, negotiated over the agreement up to the last minute. It nearly fell apart as Birenbaum interrupted Penzin’s reading of the charges to tell Fahey that he and his attorney had a fractious relationship and were not in agreement.
Birenbaum accepted the plea after Fahey told him he could dismiss Shapiro and go to trial right away with another attorney.
Shapiro called the plea a “tough situation and a painful ordeal.”
“I don’t like to plead cases,” the defense lawyer said. “Under the circumstances, it was the wise thing to do in this case.”
“I expect Mr. Birenbaum to bounce back from this and lead a very productive life. Before this, based on what I observed, he was a credit to the practice of law. It was just an unfortunate situation.”
Birenbaum was not so charitable, claiming Shapiro has broken a promise not to talk to the press, claiming that his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance, and charging that there was a conflict of interest due to a State Bar complaint Birenbaum said he filed against his lawyer based on his handling of the case.
Shapiro said he had made no promises regarding the media and that Birenbaum had made no such request. He said there was no State Bar complaint against him.
He also noted that he was Birenbaum’s fifth lawyer on the matter.
“I’m sorry to hear that he has taken this tack,” Shapiro said of his client.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company