Is Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas unjustly shaking down Defense attorney David Michael Cantor????

Valley attorney finds swagger can draw scrutiny

Jim Walsh The Arizona Republic Feb. 17, 2006 12:00 AM

Defense attorney David Michael Cantor has thrived in the limelight, building a practice through heavy advertising, referrals and representing high-profile clients.

Cantor is anything but subtle. He drives a luxury car that has a license plate with the message "acquittal" and paid $3.8 million in December 2004 for a 9,300-square-foot mansion in Paradise Valley. His Yellow Pages ads are full page and full color.

But as Cantor, 42, attempts to fight off a possible contempt citation in yet another high-profile case, he is finding out the limelight can potentially expose someone's shortcomings.

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has trained his sights on Cantor, accusing him of violating a court order by failing to obtain the passport of Muneerah Ali Al-Tarrah, a hit-and-run defendant who fled to her native Kuwait rather than face charges in the death last fall of Mesa resident Todd DeGain.

Prosecutors also accuse Cantor of failing to notify the court in a timely manner that Al-Tarrah fled, a charge Cantor attorney Mark Harrison denies. Cantor could face a trial and jail depending on the outcome of a hearing scheduled for next Friday.

"When you are high-profile and there's a lot of attention, you are scrutinized more," said Valley defense attorney Ulises Ferragut, who also is considered flashy by some peers.

"It's sort of a trade-off. There's some satisfaction and glamour in being high-profile. The negative trade-off is you are highly scrutinized."

Veteran defense attorney Richard Gierloff of Phoenix sympathizes with Cantor on the passport issue, saying that most judges would seize a passport on the court's behalf rather than leave it to the attorney.

Matt Silverman, a State Bar of Arizona spokesman, said that since the Al-Tarrah case blew up two weeks ago, the state Bar has "opened a file" on Cantor, who received an informal reprimand in 2000 for violating notary rules.

Silverman said 12 other complaints filed against Cantor since 1998 were dismissed.

Cantor rose to prominence as a specialist in traffic and DUI cases but was certified in 1999 as a criminal law specialist.

His high-profile clients have a remarkable range, including Michael Gherman, who narrowly avoided a death sentence in 2000 after he was convicted in the 1998 slayings of two Wal-Mart security officers who chased him from Mesa to Gilbert.

Other notorious clients include "Chediski" fire-starter Valinda Jo Elliott in 2002 and Patrick Haab, the soldier accused last year of acting as a vigilante when he held seven undocumented immigrants at gunpoint. Neither Elliot nor Haab was charged criminally.

Cantor has appeared on the CBS Morning Show, Hannity and Colmes on Fox News and Inside Edition, according his Web site.

"We pride ourselves in knowing more than the prosecution and police officers," the Web site pronounces.

His advertising slogan is "Beyond Aggressive."

But Cantor appears to have angered many on his rise to fame. Former associates describe him as having a huge ego and acting as a frontman for his firm while lesser-known attorneys do most of the legal work.

They praise him as an excellent businessman and describe his Tempe practice as a cash cow.

Cantor blames such complaints on disgruntled employees. He said he does most interviews on major felony cases.

"I don't have a huge ego that I'm a lawyer," he said. "I try to do the best job I do from a business sense and a law sense."

He declined to discuss the Al-Tarrah case on his attorney's advice.

Last Oct. 27, Superior Court Judge David Talamante ordered Cantor to seize Al-Tarrah's passport and file an affidavit within 24 hours as proof he obtained it.

Instead, Cantor appealed the order to the Arizona Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court, which declined jurisdiction, according to court documents.

Cantor's legal error was failing to obtain a stay of Talamante's orders during the appeals, prosecutors argue.

In addition, they say Cantor should have notified the court earlier that he had learned from Al-Tarrah's father that she fled Jan. 9.

But Harrison, Cantor's attorney, said Cantor did not know Al-Tarrah skipped until Jan. 31, a day before he appeared in court and handed Judge J. Richard Gama a copy of her father's letter that said she was suicidal and felt everything is going against her.

Gama has ordered Al-Tarrah tried in absentia on March 2. Cantor is asking Gama to remove him from the case. Police said Al-Tarrah struck and killed DeGain, 35, on Sept. 14 as co-defendant Reem Bishara followed behind in a separate car.

Although neither woman caused the accident, both are accused of fleeing and Al-Tarrah is accused of extreme driving under the influence. The victim's father has sued both women and the bars that served them.

Cantor does not represent Bishara, who is now in federal custody after authorities accused her of also attempting to flee.

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