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O.C. Lawyer Blames Her Ex-Husband in Theft Trial

August 25, 2004|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County lawyer accused of stealing from her clients took the stand in her own defense this week, saying she was entitled to some of the money and blaming her former husband for pilfering the rest from their firm when she was too consumed with work to notice.

Melanie Blum, who gained national prominence during a fertility scandal at UC Irvine, testified Tuesday that she devoted 18 hours a day to the families' cases out of a need to absolve herself from having had an abortion years earlier.

"It was my way of somehow making things right," a distraught Blum said, her gasps echoing through the Santa Ana courtroom. "It just took me all through. It still has me."

Prosecutors have charged Blum with 12 counts of grand theft, alleging she siphoned more than $150,000 from settlements in a dozen cases from 1993 to 2000 to support her cushy lifestyle. Her former husband and former partner, Mark Roseman, pleaded guilty to six charges of grand theft in the same case and is serving a four-year prison sentence.

In testimony last week, Roseman said his former wife controlled the firm's finances. But Blum denied that contention during her testimony, saying Roseman withdrew money without her knowledge or consent from the firm's client trust accounts, which allow attorneys to deposit settlement funds and withdraw money to cover fees.

Blum painted Roseman as manipulative and cruel during testimony Monday. Her voice broke as she described how he would hit her and call her crass names, threatening to snap her neck and telling her that no one would believe her if she tried to report him.

"He could be two people," Blum said. "He could turn on that very quiet person [people knew him as] when he wanted to. But it could only last so long."

Sometime after their son's birth in the late 1980s, Blum said, Roseman asserted his power over her in a different way. When she became pregnant again, with a baby she said she wanted to keep, he forced her to have an abortion, she testified.

She dived into the embryo case when it came along, she said, seeing her work for the families as a source of salvation. She said she remained oblivious to her husband's activities with the firm's finances, even when they started having difficulty paying bills in 1999.

During cross-examination, which continues today, Deputy Dist. Atty. Douglas Brannan pressed Blum on her claim that in one case before the fertility scandal she took only the money owed the firm. Legal statutes allow lawyers to take a minimum of 25% in the type of cases Blum handled, she said, and she allotted herself fees accordingly.

The charge in question involves Blum's representation of Dioselina Duque Sanchez, who sued an obstetrician who had stepped out for more than an hour to get her hair done while Sanchez was in labor. Sanchez's liver ruptured and her baby suffered severe brain injuries that rendered him deaf and blind, requiring constant care before he died five years later.

Prosecutors contend that Blum gave Sanchez only occasional "advance" checks totaling $65,000 rather than the roughly $1 million she was owed after the case was settled.

"This trust account is not a trust account," Brannan told Superior Court Judge Richard F. Toohey outside the jury's presence. "It is a Blum and Roseman account primarily to pay to their needs, and if it happened to accommodate others, that's fine."

Blum was the lead attorney in a landmark series of lawsuits against UCI and its now-closed Center for Reproductive Health, whose doctors were accused of stealing patients' embryos and selling them to other families.

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