Legal industry suffers blow in Trade Center attack; reams of documents are lost

Saturday, September 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Nearly one-fifth of New York City's lawyers have been unable to return to their offices since the attack on the World Trade Center, and reams of legal documents _ from death penalty appeals to white-collar investigations _ may be lost or destroyed.

It is unclear how many lawyers were among the dead and injured in the attack Tuesday.

Tenants that have been displaced include the U.S. Attorney's office, the Legal Aid Society, the state Attorney General's office, the Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement office and many private firms.

Some legal offices were in the World Trade Center; even more are in the surrounding area.

``We fear we may have lost some irreplaceable records, but we just don't know,'' said Pat Bath, spokeswoman for Legal Aid, located on the top three floors of the Post Office Building, near the Trade Center. There was damage to the windows and roof, but the extent was not immediately known.

The part of Legal Aid's offices that may have sustained the most damage _ on the top floor facing the Trade Center _ is where the stakes are the highest: That is where the unit representing more than a dozen defendants on death row is located.

Unlike the devastated financial-service industry, the legal field still relies heavily on paper files. While much is now computerized, subpoenas, motions filed between lawyers and evidence retrieved from crime scenes are not, and recreating the paperwork will be difficult.

To address the problem, Gov. George Pataki suspended all statutory time limitations on criminal and civil proceedings, as well as on deadlines for filing appeals.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has a skeleton staff keeping criminal arraignments going, said spokeswoman Barbara Thompson. ``We are hanging in there getting the essential things taken care of,'' she said.

All told, some 14,000 lawyers have lost or been blocked from their offices, said Frank Ciervo, spokesman for the New York State Bar Association. That is about 18 percent of the city's 76,000 lawyers.

The offices of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dissolved into rubble when World Trade Center 7 _ an evacuated, 47-story part of the complex _ collapsed. While none of the employees was believed killed, the agencies lost a huge number of files.

SEC officials said there were no plans to abandon any of the hundreds of current investigations, which include a major probe into whether investment banks during the high-tech boom illegally divvied up shares of initial public offerings.

The agency will probably have to recreate case files by getting copies of the documents it has filed with courts and other agencies.

``It will slow us down and we will need some time to recover,'' said Wayne Carlin, the SEC's Northeast regional director. ``We lost a lot of stuff, though some of it is reconstructible.''

The U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan would not comment on its office operations.

Just this summer, the office won the conviction of two men charged with blowing up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 213 people. That attack was allegedly orchestrated by Saudi exile Osama bin Lada, who authorities also believe may be behind the World Trade Center attack.