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Montco defense lawyer's drug arrest may snarl case

NORRISTOWN The arrest last week of Norristown lawyer Gregory R. Noonan on drug charges isn't just your ordinary case of an attorney being accused of dealing drugs.

Gregory R. Noonan.
Gregory R. Noonan.Read more

NORRISTOWN The arrest last week of Norristown lawyer Gregory R. Noonan on drug charges isn't just your ordinary case of an attorney being accused of dealing drugs.

At the same time that Montgomery County prosecutors were investigating Noonan for dealing in a controlled substance, they were squaring off against him in court, where he was representing a Souderton doctor on similar charges.

The two cases, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said, were a blow against the county's rising problem of "opiate abuse in both children and adults."

They also illustrate the complexity and thorny ethical issues that thread through Noonan's case - and the mystery of why a successful attorney allegedly sold drugs.

The timing of the Noonan investigation, amid and around the trial of his client Richard Ruth, is not itself an ethical breach on the part of prosecutors, said Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and director of its Jacob Burns Center for Ethics in the Practice of Law: "The problem is, the conviction [of Ruth] for them is in jeopardy."

Ferman announced Noonan's arrest Friday. Twice, according to a statement from her, Noonan sold the highly addictive prescription painkiller Oxycodone to an undercover police officer.

On Nov. 22, a county jury convicted Ruth, 78, of all 25 counts against him, including nine of prescribing a controlled substance to a drug-dependent person and 10 of unlawful prescription of a controlled substance. One of the controlled substances was Oxycodone.

Received a tip

An investigation began in 2013, the police criminal complaint against Noonan says, after county detectives received a tip that Noonan, 53, "was involved in the illegal distribution of narcotics."

No one at the District Attorney's Office would comment on the case, including on when the investigation began.

The complaint shows that on Nov. 23, about 9:42 a.m., Noonan called the cellphone of a potential customer. "Noonan left a message for the undercover police officer and said he wanted to meet him at his office," according to the complaint.

Prosecutors, Yaroshefsky said, "must have been investigating the lawyer all along."

When the officer called Noonan back, the two agreed to meet at Noonan's office in Norristown that evening.

Noonan met the investigator in his 1997 Jaguar, which was parked outside his law office, near Norristown's Gotwals Elementary School, and handed his "customer" a prescription bottle with the label partially removed, the police document said.

He told the officer he wanted $15 per pill for about 175 30-milligram Oxycodone pills, and accepted a payment of $2,000 now and $625 later.

They met again on Dec. 19, in Noonan's car outside his office. The officer paid Noonan the remaining plus $2,625 for 180 more 30-milligram Oxycodone tablets. Noonan was arrested after the sale.

"You are the D.A. and believe the lawyer is engaged in criminal conduct," Yaroshefsky said. If prosecutors had made a sealed request for the judge in Ruth's case to remove Noonan because he was under investigation, Noonan would have known authorities were watching him.

"They're between a rock and hard place," she said of the prosecutors.

Conflict of interest?

Could Ruth appeal his conviction based on Noonan's arrest?

It's possible, Yaroshefsky said.

"The client has a motion for a conflict of interest, to set aside the conviction, if the lawyer is engaging in criminal conduct during the course of the investigation and or trial," she said.

Deborah L. Rhode, a professor at the Stanford University Law School and director of its Center on the Legal Profession, disagreed. She said there might be a problem if Noonan were charged during the trial.

"If he doesn't know he's under investigation," she said, "it's hard to think his defense will be compromised or chilled in any way."

Ruth's family could not be reached for comment.

Though the police complaint described the Ruth trial as a "relevant event," it said Noonan told detectives the pills came from "the wife of a former law client" who owed him money.

Noonan explained to investigators: "I didn't want to represent her husband for free, and I've got bills to pay, overhead, so I knew where I could unload them. . . . I wouldn't change anything I did. I did what I had to do to pay my staff."

Money problems

Federal bankruptcy records show that being in a money crunch apparently is a long-running problem for Noonan.

Montgomery County Court entered a mortgage-foreclosure judgment against Noonan, in favor of Jersey-based Amboy Bank, in 2003. Since then, Noonan has filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in New Jersey and Pennsylvania at least four times, the latest in 2011, to keep his house from being auctioned off at a sheriff's sale. Judges dismissed the cases, federal court documents show.

Noonan repeatedly made misleading statements in the court papers, according to filings made by the bank, including saying in 2011 that he had no current income.

"This [multiple bankruptcy filings] is not unusual for a borrower who wants to stay in his house," said Yardley bankruptcy lawyer Mike Shavel, who represented Amboy Bank.

What is not so usual, he said, is when the filer is a bankruptcy attorney.

"The question of the hour that we could never figure out is why. We don't have an answer where the money went," Shavel said.

"I'm in total shock about what occurred here," said lawyer Vincent A. Cirillo Jr., who represented Ruth's son and office manager, Michael Ruth. Father and son were on trial in the same proceeding.

"It just doesn't compute," Cirillo said of Noonan. "He has a good practice. He makes money. I just don't understand why he would have to sell painkillers."

Noonan and the Ruths now live near each other - as prisoners in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility awaiting further legal proceedings.