Suspended lawyer's saga sheds light on small-town justice
For years, lawyer Timothy "Rock" Pizzo represented defendants. Then he became one.
The story of Pizzo, 59, represents a cautionary tale about the temptations in the life of a criminal defense lawyer — and the complications that can ensue in a county where everyone knows everyone, including the judges.
Pizzo is facing two charges of possession of meth as well as endangering a minor, and is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday, May 22, in Columbia County Circuit Court. Because of his close ties to the legal system there, a Multnomah County probation officer has been supervising him and a Multnomah deputy district attorney is prosecuting the case.
Pizzo was suspended by the Oregon State Bar, which oversees lawyers, on March 29. Before that, he managed to maintain his ability to practice law for more than 14 months despite his arrest and indictment. While on a form of probation, he has repeatedly been cited for driving while his license was suspended and for further instances of meth possession. He's gotten into two car accidents — one a suspected drunken driving case, the other coming a week later when Pizzo crashed a pickup truck belonging to Columbia County's acting presiding judge, Ted Grove.
Grove, who had sought to help Pizzo fight his addiction, said that, in December, he loaned his truck to Pizzo who needed to move some things into storage.
Grove said that with himself having been in recovery from alcoholism for 26 years, he felt he had to help Pizzo, a personal friend who he said "was a very effective attorney for quite some time. Then (he started) using methamphetamine and I think it just caused him to spiral into the ground."
Supported the underdogs
Pizzo was raised in Indiana, son of a prominent local doctor. His older brother is a Hollywood screenwriter and producer known for his successful underdog movies about sports, including "Hoosiers" and "Rudy."
Pizzo was himself an underdog. Graduating law school in 1993, he was admitted to the practice of law by the Oregon State Bar in May 1996. By that time, he'd already had two convictions for driving under the influence of intoxicants and one for possession of psilocybin. He entered the Bar's attorney assistance program, which helps people with addiction problems, and "experienced two decades of recovery," according to a March 2019 Oregon State Bar document.
In Columbia County, with its population of about 50,000, Pizzo frequently represented people facing drug charges and was active in county programs intended to help people fighting addiction to get back on their feet.
"He was able to guide his clients into recovery services and shepherded them through the rocky terrain from addict to competent and nurturing parent," Grove wrote in a letter to the Bar on Pizzo's behalf in September 2017.
In August 2017, however, Pizzo first used methamphetamine, according to state Bar documents. In December of that year, a 17-year-old boy staying at his house sold Pizzo meth.
"After 20 years of sobriety, Pizzo did not realize that he had succumbed to his addiction," said a Bar summary of his case.
When police raided Pizzo's house on Jan. 12, 2018, they found meth scattered all over the house, including in Pizzo's pocket, documents show. There were four ounces in all, enough for hundreds of doses, and Pizzo admitted using some of it.
After his arrest in January 2018, Pizzo went into a drug treatment program and returned to find $40,000 stolen from his office.
"He began using meth at the age of 57 and lost most everything within about 30 days," a probation officer wrote of Pizzo on Nov. 19, 2018.
In October 2018, while fighting the foreclosure of his house, Pizzo tested positive for meth in a visit to his probation officer, triggering another indictment.
"Mr Pizzo surrounds himself with known drug users and people on probation," Justin Hecht of the Columbia County Department of Community Justice, wrote in an affidavit, according to the Columbia County Spotlight. "He has allowed offenders to live in his home, and the probation office has had multiple community reports that Mr. Pizzo is actively using in the community, and buying drugs from offenders."
Pizzo was stopped and cited by St. Helens police repeatedly for driving while his license was suspended, on Nov. 9, Dec. 1, Dec. 23, Dec. 24 and Dec. 31 of last year, and then again on Jan. 5.
Last Dec. 13, the St. Helens Police Department responded to a call reporting an apparent drunken driver who had hit a parked car and failed to leave appropriate information. It turned out to be Pizzo.
Then, about a week later, with his license still suspended, Pizzo crashed Grove's pickup truck while the judge was on vacation. Pizzo told Grove a fogged-up windshield caused the crash.
Judges supported him
Pizzo's relations with the few judges in Columbia County helped him. In August 2017, a fellow lawyer, David Hocraffer, relayed several reports alleging sexual harassment by Pizzo to the Oregon State Bar. Pizzo denied them and supplied letters of support written by the county's three judges: the county's then-presiding judge, Jenefer Grant, as well as Grove, and Cathleen Callahan.
After he was jailed in November 2018 for meth, Pizzo was released to the care of Grove due to concerns about his mental health, the judge said.
Grove said he was reacting with compassion as one recovering addict to another. And Grove was known for having helped others in recovery as well, according to Pizzo's lawyer, Mark Lang.
But Grove's trust in Pizzo proved risky.
In an Oct. 24, 2018 entry in Pizzo's probation log — the same day his urine tested positive for meth — his probation officer wrote that inmates had claimed they had delivered meth to Pizzo, and that he "is living at Judge Grove's house."
Grove said it's true Pizzo stayed over at his house on a number of occasions in 2018, but no more than 10 days in all. He doesn't think Pizzo received meth while at his house, saying, "Obviously my conditions of Rock spending any time at my house was that he was going to stay clean and sober."
Then, in January of this year, Grove filed an action in small claims court against Pizzo for $3,000 for the damage to his truck when the lawyer crashed it. Grove said that though Pizzo's license was suspended due to failure to pay child support, he had promised Grove he would restore his driving privileges—which never happened.
"I found out that he had run into a pole and had set off the air bags," Grove explained, adding that a judgment was Grove's best "hope of getting my money back since he was not insured and my pickup was old enough that it wasn't insured."
Pizzo's sentencing was repeatedly delayed despite multiple probation officer recommendations that his probation be revoked.
Though Grove has presided over some of the hearings in Pizzo's criminal prosecution, he noted they were "perfunctory" in nature, and typically did not involve any discretion on his part — sometimes because prosecutors and Pizzo's lawyer were in agreement.
On the personal level, Grove said he has no regrets about helping Pizzo, even though Pizzo did not fulfill his promises.
"I did what I thought was right. I'm sure I would probably do it again. If there's any fault it lays with him," he said. "All I did was put my trust in him and expect that he was going to follow through (with) the services that ... had been able to to keep him clean and sober for many years in the past. "
Judge Grant, another friend of Pizzo's, signed an order issuing a continuance in Pizzo's case, which was stipulated by both sides, and also issued the small claims judgment against him on behalf of Grove.
As far as judicial ethics, she said her involvement didn't cross any lines, and she played no role in the delays that postponed sentencing despite Pizzo's multiple relapses. She said jail can save an addict's life, "so as someone who has been a friend of Rock's in the past I would have no reason to interfere with such an outcome for him."
Judge points at Bar
Grant, who did not alert the Bar to any concerns with Pizzo, said she was surprised that the lawyers' regulatory organization did not take action to suspend him earlier. That finally happened on March 29 of this year based on Pizzo's failure to respond to a complaint filed on Jan. 13, 2018, by Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier.
Grant said "I do think it is surprising that the Bar has continued to let him practice, if the relapses I have heard about have in fact occurred."
A local defense lawyers consortium stopped sending new cases to Pizzo as his troubles surfaced, though he did continue working the cases he already had — many of which involved defendants facing meth charges — and also took on nine new clients after his first 2018 arrest.
State Bar rules provide for attorneys who are in legal trouble to keep practicing until their case is resolved, unless there is clear and ample evidence of immediate jeopardy to clients.
"We were aware that he entered into a long-term treatment program and was reportedly engaged in recovery work," a bar spokeswoman wrote in an email. "Meanwhile in a separate matter, we had received letters of support from multiple judges speaking on Mr. Pizzo's behalf."
No clients complained about Pizzo, and no judges either — until March 11, when a Wasco County judge reported Pizzo seemingly had neglected a case.
A retired Supreme Court Justice, Richard Baldwin, will preside over Pizzo's sentencing on Wednesday — in Grove's courtroom.
Said Grove, "I'm hoping that (Pizzo) will be able to slay his demons and become a healthy human in whatever endeavor he chooses to engage in. Because he's got a lot of potential. He's got a good heart. He's helped a lot of people out here in spite of his obvious flaws."
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