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VOL. 133 | NO. 116 | Monday, June 11, 2018

Laurenzi Joins Baker Donelson After Long Career as Prosecutor

By Bill Dries

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Larry Laurenzi describes himself as a “litigator” – meaning much of his 35-year career in the Memphis U.S. Attorney’s office was about the courtroom – going to trial or preparing to go to trial.

Laurenzi joined Baker Donelson this month as of counsel in the law firm’s government enforcement and investigations group. It’s a position that will involve some familiar white-collar crime cases but from a different perspective.

“Some of it is going to be connected to what would be criminal investigations. We have a white-collar defense team at Baker Donelson and it is very active,” he said of the unit led by Joe D. Whitley, a former U.S. attorney in the middle and northern districts of Georgia and a former general counsel to the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Larry Laurenzi

“One of the services we provide is to actively represent clients that have been charged federally with white-collar offenses,” Laurenzi said. “We have a number of those cases in the office at this time. Also under that group is going to be the government investigations.”

Those were the kinds of cases Laurenzi prosecuted in a tenure that included being U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee from 2008 to 2010 and acting U.S. attorney three times. When he retired from the office earlier this year, he was serving as first assistant U.S. attorney.

He also represented the Justice Department in civil cases involving the federal False Claims Act – taking civil action against companies and individuals for false claims they allegedly made.

“Being a litigator for so long, I can easily make the transition to represent any client in that setting. At the same time, is it different? The answer is of course it is,” he said. “You are looking at it from a totally different perspective. From the government’s perspective it is, ‘What can we prove and can we prove it beyond a reasonable doubt?’ From a defendant’s perspective, it’s just the opposite. It really becomes where does the government fail in its proof, particularly if the matter goes to trial.”

One of the cases Laurenzi supervised as acting U.S. attorney was a review of Alice Marie Johnson’s 1996 conviction on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. President Donald Trump commuted Johnson’s life sentence last week.

Last year, Laurenzi said the U.S. attorney’s office opposed Johnson’s motion in court for a reduction in her life sentence.

“The president has the legal authority to do it,” Laurenzi said Thursday, June 7, the day after Johnson was freed from prison after serving 21 years. “It’s obvious that he has considered the facts in the petition that was before him and he has made a decision to commute it.”

Laurenzi’s long list of cases as a litigator includes the guilty verdicts last year against members of the Bates family for their gold and precious metals business, with the jury finding the commodities business was a fraud.

“I think it exposed nationally the problem with these commodities companies that will sell precious metals,” Laurenzi said. “I think it has also made people pause when people begin preaching in their marketing effort. I know that Mr. (Larry) Bates used a number of Christian videos to sell or push his wares. Hopefully people will be a little wiser when it comes to making their investments and they won’t do it solely just based upon the Christian beliefs of a particular person.”

In the late 1980s, Laurenzi was the prosecutor in a civil rights case against three Shelby County sheriff’s deputies accused in the death of Michael Gates, a suspect arrested in one of then-Sheriff Jack Owens’ “jump and grab” sting operations.

Deputies posed as drug dealers and a large force of deputies arrested those who bought from the undercover officers. Owens used the stings aggressively in neighborhoods across the city and used deputies with little to no training in the operations.

The trial exposed the lack of training.

Gates allegedly bought crack cocaine from one of the undercover officers and was arrested. While he was in custody he snatched a vial of the drugs from deputies and ran. He died in custody after deputies chased and caught him.

The jury in the case convicted deputy Sherman Boyland and acquitted two other deputies in the incident.

“The officer did not intend to kill the young man, but the officer did intend to each him a lesson for running. He crushed an artery in his neck,” Laurenzi said. “There were ill-equipped people who were asked to do very difficult things. The result of course is what we got.”

Even before the trial, the sheriff’s department ended the use of “jump and grab” operations.

“I think it also brought back a level of public confidence in knowing that while we support our police in most of what they do, when they overstep the bounds – which we had in this case – that they will be held accountable,” Laurenzi said.

Laurenzi also prosecuted Willieann and John Madison in a 2004 trial in which both were convicted of fraud and tax evasion in the operation of Cherokee Children and Family Services Inc. Cherokee served as the broker or middle man between the state of Tennessee and day care operators seeking to run centers that received state subsidies for child care.

After the case, the state ended the practice of having day care brokers.

“It changed the landscape of how day care was being provided throughout all of Tennessee,” Laurenzi said. “That was a substantial case.”

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