A practicing attorney for more than three decades in Baltimore, Nelson R. Kandel is no stranger to the city's courtrooms. Yesterday, however, he found himself in the unfamiliar role of defendant, standing trial on charges of felony theft and insurance fraud.
To the prosecutors who say he submitted phony injury claims for automobile accidents that never happened, Mr. Kandel is nothing more than a lawyer with no respect for the law.
To his defense attorneys, the 62-year-old personal-injury lawyer was simply too good at his job to suit the insurance companies they say helped steer an undercover state police investigation into bogus accident claims.
"He's probably the most prominent and successful personal-injury lawyer in the city," defense lawyer Arnold M. Weiner told a Baltimore Circuit Court jury yesterday.
Mr. Weiner complained that an industry group known as the Insurance Crime Protection Bureau, resentful of Mr. Kandel's success, targeted him when a state investigation begun in 1989 was sputtering.
Norman L. Smith, an assistant Maryland attorney general leading the prosecution team, told the jurors that Mr. Kandel encouraged undercover state troopers to fake injuries for insurance money in three separate meetings.
"When they entered the offices of Nelson Kandel they hit the mother lode of insurance fraud," Mr. Smith said. Mr. Kandel is accused of taking a one-third share of about $6,000 in settlements.
Mr. Kandel, who lives in the 7500 block of L'Hirondelle Club Road in Ruxton, was arrested four months ago after being indicted as part of a yearlong investigation that began with the troopers' first visit to his office in November 1990.
The charges against him were the first to arise from an investigation targeting the practices of lawyers, doctors and other professionals with roles in the handling of insurance claims.
Although a state insurance official said as many as 10 lawyers and several physicians also could face indictment in the probe -- the first major investigation of insurance fraud in the state since the mid-1970s -- Mr. Kandel remains the only lawyer charged.
In a case unrelated to Mr. Kandel's, three employees of a Baltimore medical clinic, one of them a physician, were arrested in April on charges related to false automobile insurance accident claims.
The investigation has used undercover agents who go to lawyers' offices saying that they have been in an accident, were not injured, but want to make some money. The investigators presented lawyers with bogus policies on state vehicles provided by insurance companies.
Mr. Smith said Mr. Kandel told a state police corporal "you're too honest" after she said she had not been injured in an accident. The prosecutor said the lawyer told the trooper she should claim to have head, neck and back injuries if she wanted to get some money out of the claim.
The prosecutor said that on another occasion an undercover postal inspector who said he had driven into a pole was told by Mr. Kandel to file a police report claiming he had been run off the road.
The first witness in the case, state police Sgt. Floyd Jones, testified that he went undercover as a recruiter of accident victims, earning $50 from Mr. Kandel.
After telling a trooper posing as an uninjured accident victim that she would have to claim injuries to file a complaint, the lawyer told Sergeant Jones, "You have to school her, bro'," the witness said.
Opening statements suggested the case may turn on whether jurors find Mr. Kandel was encouraging fraud or merely interviewing potential clients. Mr. Weiner insisted his client was merely asking questions, doing his job like any good lawyer.
Melvin Hirshman, counsel for the state's Attorney Grievance Commission, said yesterday that Mr. Kandel was reprimanded in 1989 for advancing money to clients for car repairs, a violation of rules governing lawyers' conduct. He said a lawyer convicted of a felony carrying a penalty of three years or more places himself in danger of losing his law license.
If convicted, Mr. Kandel would face maximum penalties of 50 years in prison.