OTTAWA - A prominent Ottawa lawyer with close ties to Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he was dragged through a Law Society of Upper Canada hearing and found guilty of professional misconduct simply because he wanted to help the morale of his cancer-stricken secretary.
Manny Montenegrino, suspended from practising for two months for billing work he did not perform, says he admitted to his mistakes. But he tells Law Times his motives in the dealings with his client in the case, the City of Ottawa, were so above-board that the discipline hearing panel had a difficult time agreeing he had done anything wrong.
“My clients were the strongest supporter,” he tells Law Times.
Montenegrino added that had he not once represented Harper in a civil suit and maintained close ties to the prime minister, his own case would have attracted no media coverage or other attention.
The allegations against Montenegrino came from Daniel Leduc, now with Ogilvy Renault LLP in Ottawa, who was a partner with Lang Michener LLP in the capital while Montenegrino was managing partner.
Montenegrino initially suggested to Law Times that his relations with Leduc while Montenegrino was managing partner were behind Leduc’s decision to go to the law society with allegations of improper conduct. He later withdrew from that position after Leduc’s lawyer, Rick Brooks, denied that was the case.
Montenegrino explained his longtime secretary’s illness was at the root of actions that led to the hearing’s finding that between November 2001 and December 2003 he “engaged in professional misconduct for engaging in improper billing practices and procedures in connection with his client, and for submitting accounts to his clients for services that he did not perform.”
When his own secretary was battling cancer, he asked another secretary in the firm to perform docketing.
“My secretary had cancer and I did not replace her, so I went to another secretary and she did it erroneously and I didn’t supervise properly, and yes, I made a mistake,” he says.
“My thinking was that I did not want her in her dying bed to think that I replaced her, to affect her morale. So I used another secretary that I wasn’t accustomed to. My other secretary would have done things probably right; I would have communicated more. I made a mistake and dockets were entered. The agreed statement of facts said she ‘guestimated’ the time, and it was fine, but it wasn’t purely accurate.”
Montenegrino noted the City of Ottawa continued to retain him after the allegations.
A former Reform party organizer who says he joined the party in 1992 and began to work for its election as government because of political division in Canada and a poor economy, Montenegrino says his close ties to Harper were among the reasons he decided not to elect a trial to settle the case.
“That reason came into my thinking as how to handle this case; it was bigger than me,” he says in the Law Times interview.
“I did not want the media there every day, misreporting things, because the media tend to do that,” he says. “I know that the story is the prime minister. When I get a parking violation, it’s the prime minister’s lawyer that got a parking violation. I understand, and everyone’s having a field day on it.”
Montenegrino represented Harper in 2006 when Harper’s former chef from his time as Opposition leader sued him for wrongful dismissal after Harper became prime minister. The case was settled out of court.
He has also registered as a lobbyist for a range of companies, including a U.S. space firm that failed to get federal approval for the acquisition of a Canadian firm that designed the Radarsat surveillance satellite. The Harper cabinet scuttled the bid on grounds it would harm Canadian sovereignty.
Asked how his ordeal has affected his work, Montenegrino replied: “I’m taking two months off; I need the break.”
Montenegrino displayed frustration with the self-regulated disciplinary system for benchers.
“I’d really love to talk to you about that because I experienced it first-hand,” he says. “I would love to do that, but I would rather not.”
But he went on:
“How about a lawyer that had his client in support, that the client did not complain, that the client continues to support, the client says he is an exceptional lawyer, that the client says that on one occasion he reduced an account substantially to assist the client, and is there in support; and the lawyer directs a non-staff member, makes a mistake, it’s a trivial amount of money, less than one-quarter of one per cent of what he has billed?
“Yeah, that’s me.”