Breach of Trust
By David Ellis
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
$25.95, hard cover, 420 pages, 978-0-399-15710-3 (2011)
David Ellis was the Impeachment Prosecutor who convicted ex-governor Rod Blagojevich before the Illinois Senate. So as it relates to the legal aspects of this fictional novel – he clearly knows his stuff. He is also the author of six other novels, including The Hidden Man, featuring the same main character, Jason Kolarich
Breach of Trust features Kolarich, an attorney and former football star, grieving after the tragic loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident. Due to his trial preparation in the defense of a State Senator, Kolarich wasn’t with his wife and daughter for their planned trip to see her parents. If he’d been driving the car, perhaps the accident never would have happened. And if he hadn’t put pressure on a certain former gang member and potential witness in defending the local Senator, the witness might not have been murdered. The eventual acquittal of his client doesn’t do much to ease his conscience.
Now, with nothing to lose, Kolarich searches for the killer of his witness hoping it will bring him a measure of peace with his decision not to accompany his family on that fateful trip. The investigation leads him to take a job in a corrupt state government and he soon finds himself wearing a wire and dodging life-threatening situations. As his search gains leads, he becomes boxed in with the same Assistant U.S. Attorney he defeated in representing the State Senator. It seems all but certain that he’ll be prosecuted himself due to fabricated evidence from his employers. And following the trail of shady dealings leads him to kickbacks, criminal fraud, and murder by powerful and dangerous people in high office.
Ellis is a competent writer and he does a good job at throwing just enough curveballs into the plot to keep the reader guessing. His dialog is realistic – sometimes too much so. When Kolarich is wearing a wire, he often catches people talking about criminal activity. The problem is – just as in real life – criminals often don’t come right out and admit their full involvement. In addition, Kkolarich often has to discuss things in such a way that the information can later be used at trial. Unfortunately, all these legal explanations of why things are said in a certain way just bog down the story.
For example, when Kolarich is outlining a way to circumvent state laws dealing with veterans’ preferences, he calls it “good news” and explains his scheme to the governor’s chief of staff, Madison Koehler.
She seemed okay with that. “And the bad news?”
“The bad news,” I said, “is that everything we’ve just discussed is illegal. We aren’t supposed to do any of this. The law says that we must give a veteran’s preference to all of these jobs we’re trying to fill. It says we mush take ‘every reasonable measure’ to ensure veterans are given their rightful preference. We’re doing the opposite. We’re taking every measure to consciously avoid the veteran’s preference.”
Madison put down the pen she was twiddling between her fingers and sat back in her chair. “I don’t want to hear that.”
I’m sure she didn’t. But it was essential that I say these things. It had to be clear that I was helping to orchestrate an illegal scheme. Otherwise, the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege didn’t apply, and everything we were discussing might be deemed privileged and unusable to the prosecution in court. Plus it made the case airtight, when the jury listened to the recording of this conversation, Madison couldn’t claim that she was relying on advice of counsel when her counsel was telling her, up front, that their plan was illegal.
For those non-lawyers reading this book, I’m not convinced that it’s necessary to have a fictional character say and do things in such a way that he doesn’t violate “the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege” to make it believable. These types of repeated examples of having dialog rigidly comply with legal requirements slowed down the pace of the book.
On last thing: the entire time I was reading the book, I always wondered about the nature of the author’s legal experience in prosecuting Rod Blagojevich. Would the crooked dealings in this novel extend all the way up to the fictional governor? If so, how closely would it parallel the legal problems faced by Blagojevich?
It was difficult not to wonder how much of the author’s real-life trial experiences dealing with Blagojevich may have spilled over into the pages of this work of fiction. For me, it was a distraction. For others, it might just be another layer of realism.