In lawyer's free fall from grace, a strange turn

February 23, 1992|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer Staff writers Jay Apperson and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

The latest pages in the life ledger of Fred Kolodner read this way:

Convicted of sports betting. Estranged from family. Slapped with palimony suit. Disbarred. Charged with practicing law without license. Convicted of stealing from clients. Accused of hiding money from creditors in bankruptcy proceedings.

Two weeks ago, a new entry was recorded, the strangest one yet. Arrested in New Jersey at age 66 for practicing medicine without a license.

Fred Kolodner may never have risen all that high, but his fall from grace has seemingly been without end.

It is now a distant memory, but there was a time when Fred Kolodner's life was full of promise. He graduated second in his University of Baltimore Law School class. He was once the law partner of Philip Goodman, who went on to become a Baltimore mayor. And he stood atop a prosperous downtown law practice, enjoying a reputation as "a hard-nosed plaintiff's lawyer . . . scrupulous and honest," in the later words of a judge.

Those flattering images of Kolodner have long since been crowded out by a mountain of evidence suggesting he became something else altogether.

"Some people, whatever idea they have is a dishonest one," said Melvin Hirshman, counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission that helped strip Kolodner of his Maryland law license in 1991, ending a 42-year legal practice. "Mr. Kolodner would appear to be one of them."

His victims could fill a courtroom, maybe three dozen of them who trusted him and then were left wondering what happened to their money.

"That man caused me three years of heartache," said 61-year-old Catherine Yankee, from whom Kolodner had stolen $54,000, resulting in his 1991 conviction for theft in Baltimore County. "I think that man should really pay."

To this day, Kolodner says his clients were victims of his alcoholism. But during disbarment proceedings, a psychiatrist testified that drink had nothing to do with cheating clients. The problem, she said, was more fundamental. The psychiatrist said Kolodner is a narcissist who "feels that he deserves special treatment."

Treatment is what reportedly landed him in trouble in New Jersey. George Dix, mayor of Pleasantville, a stone's throw from Atlantic City, said Kolodner is alleged to have examined a patient in his wife's newly opened medical clinic, taken X-rays of the man's back, given him a brace, and signed a medical order granting him two days off from work.

The episode has left tiny Pleasantville slack-jawed. For months, townsfolk marveled at the Kolodners' conspicuous consumption -- their luxury cars, their exquisite dress, their not-to-be-missed jewelry.

Now they're abuzz over a scandal that is proving an embarrassment to a city administration that was caught sleepwalking.

Kolodner said last week the new charges against him were groundless. "I have never, ever treated any patient," said Kolodner, an Alfred Hitchcock look-a-like who wears a diamond-studded gold pinky ring. "This is not true."

Deborah Kolodner insisted that the charges against her husband stemmed from jealousy over her new clinic, closed barely three weeks after opening when Kolodner and two clinic doctors were charged with practicing without New Jersey licenses.

Pleasantville City Administrator Andrew Salerno merely wished the couple had never walked into his office. "I'm still hoping all this isn't true," he lamented.

"Lawyer brought dishonor"

They liked him in Pleasantville. He had a sense of humor and could tell a good story. Real down-to-earth. Not like his wife, whom they found haughty. They couldn't shake the feeling that she was looking down her nose at them, wanting to make sure they knew she had money.

"She is a young thing dripping with diamonds and rings," Mayor Dix said.

She introduced her husband as a retired Baltimore lawyer, and said it in a way that made them think he was once a distinguished jurist. They did not know that in his four-decade career, he had most distinguished himself by helping himself to his clients' money, using some of it to pay gambling debts.

As the mayor said, "That's not the sort of thing you'd put on your resume."

If it were, Mr. Salerno said, city officials probably would not have lent Mrs. Kolodner $20,000 interest-free to start the Kolodner Medical Clinic, especially not if they had known that Kolodner's malfeasance began after his wife had become the keeper of his books in 1981.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, which metes out punishment to wayward lawyers, did know, however.

In 1989, the judges decided that Mrs. Kolodner's inexperience as an office manager and Kolodner's alcoholism had led to sloppy bookkeeping and the disappearance of clients' money. Believing Kolodner was chastened, they suspended him with the intention of allowing him to resume practice.

He soon would make them regret their leniency. A trickle of aggrieved clients suddenly became a flood, each complaining that Kolodner had separated him or her from their money.

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