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Caroline prosecutor accepts reprimand

Caroline County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Spencer, who was accused of gathering information from a defense lawyer under false pretenses, has agreed to a public reprimand to resolve a Virginia State Bar discipline charge.

The reprimand stemmed from a 2011 incident in which a paralegal working in Spencer’s office, at his request, represented herself as a college student who was conducting a survey about lawyer administrative support personnel.

According to a disposition, Spencer told the disciplinary board that the catalyst for the survey came from a statement made by Richmond attorney John LaFratta, who was representing former Caroline sheriff’s deputy Clyde Davenport in a child-abuse case. Spencer was the prosecuting attorney.

In LaFratta’s closing statement in September 2010, he told the jury that he thought the scales of justice were tipped in the commonwealth’s favor.

“Look at all the resources that have been at the disposal of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office” that has investigated this case, LaFratta said after naming about 10 witnesses or experts who testified on behalf of the prosecution. “And then I look at my table and I see what’s been afforded Mr. Davenport—just me, a couple of law books, a couple of brown binders jam-packed full of papers. And I thought that seems a little unfair.”

In Spencer’s rebuttal, he told the jury that, “Mr. LaFratta would have you believe that he has no one working in his office. [That] he doesn’t have a secretary, a paralegal, and a partner that he works with. He would have you believe that somehow he’s working out of his bedroom and he has these two books that he brings with him. I assure you that this is not the case.”

Davenport was convicted that day of malicious wounding and child abuse resulting in injury. Later, a mistrial was declared, a new trial date was scheduled and both Spencer and LaFratta were removed from the case by Judge Joseph J. Ellis.

Ellis said he removed both attorneys because he believed their ability to remain professional was overwhelmed by personal animosity toward each other.

LaFratta filed a bar complaint against Spencer, accusing him of misrepresenting his level of administrative support to the jury, according to the disposition.

Spencer said that before he responded to the complaint, he needed to investigate whether LaFratta made a false statement.

According to the disposition, a woman working as a paralegal in Spencer’s office was also taking paralegal classes at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College. Following the complaint, Spencer asked the paralegal to find another student who would be willing to conduct a survey on the number of attorneys in LaFratta’s office, the number of administrative support personnel and the duties they perform.

When no other students were willing to do the survey, Spencer asked the paralegal to do it, according to the disposition. He instructed the paralegal not to identify herself as an employee of his office.

After reviewing her survey findings, Spencer did not file a bar complaint, and LaFratta’s complaint against him was dismissed.

However, LaFratta later learned it was Spencer’s paralegal who came to his office, and he reported the matter to the court.

The Virginia State Bar, an administrative agency of the Supreme Court of Virginia, found that Spencer violated three rules of professional conduct, which includes responsibilities regarding non-lawyer assistants, bar admission and disciplinary matters and misconduct.

The public reprimand without terms was imposed effective Feb. 28.

“I made a mistake. My intentions were good, but the method I chose to find the truth was inappropriate,” Spencer said in a statement.

“Fortunately, with this mistake, there is nothing to fix. No one was harmed even slightly by the mistake I made. I will not make this mistake again.”

Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419

psmith@fredericksburg.com

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