NEXT UP: Longtime FDO attorney to serve as acting chief

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

He officially began his career at the Federal Defender Office in Detroit on April Fools’ Day, circa 1983, nearly 37 years ago.

The April 1 date, which annually is celebrated by pranksters worldwide, would not be the precursor to a misspent career move by Richard Helfrick, a Wayne State University Law School alum.
Instead, the date would serve as the launch pad for career success, most recently framed within the context of his responsibilities as chief deputy of the FDO for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Beginning in early March, Helfrick will assume an expanded role with the FDO as acting chief of the federal agency, which provides court-appointed representation to indigent defendants charged with federal crimes in the Eastern District. In essence, he will serve as the interim successor to the retiring Miriam Siefer, who has spent the past 25 years in charge of the office.

For Helfrick, the change will come with mixed emotions.

“I have never known life here without her,” Helfrick said of Siefer. “She has always been the constant, a tremendous leader and a gifted attorney who has been the cornerstone of the office for so many years. It’s really going to be difficult to see her go.”

Helfrick actually began his career at the FDO as a law clerk following graduation from Wayne State Law.

“I was there for a time until I passed the bar exam but there were no staff openings then, so I took a job as a staff attorney for the U.S. District Court,” Helfrick related.

He remained there for nearly two years before interviewing for an opening at the FDO as a research attorney. Interestingly enough, he was interviewed by Siefer, then chief deputy to FDO Chief Paul Borman, the future federal judge. A year-and-a-half later, Helfrick earned a promotion to staff attorney, eventually rising to the position of deputy chief, the second in command at the FDO.

Siefer, whose final day at the FDO will be in late February, said she has the “highest regard” for Helfrick and that she is leaving the office in “capable hands.”

Added Siefer: “Rick is a terrific attorney who has tried some of the office’s most high-profile cases. Rick will be supported by Administrative Officer Carol McGuire, who for decades has been essential to the smooth running of the office.”

Of particular note, Helfrick and two colleagues, Leroy Soles and James Gerometta,  represented suspected terrorist Karim Koubriti in a case that arose out of an FBI raid in Detroit just six days after the 9-11 attacks. The case against Koubriti, a Moroccan immigrant, and three other suspects initially was viewed as the Department of Justice’s first major courtroom victory in the war on terror.
But months after Koubriti’s 2003 conviction on charges of supporting terrorism and document fraud conspiracy, Helfrick and his FDO colleagues petitioned the U.S. District Court for a new trial, alleging prosecutorial misconduct, a charge that was found to be true less than a year later when Koubriti’s conviction was set aside by then U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen.

Helfrick also was part of the FDO trial team that represented defendants in the so-called “Hutaree Case” involving members of a Christian militia charged in 2010 with sedition and conspiracy to plot an anti-government uprising. The charges were dismissed by U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts in 2012 after she determined that the government failed to prove that the defendants had formalized plans to attack anyone.

In that trial, Detroit area attorney Harry Mihas helped represent one of the militia members and later observed in a Q & A interview with the State Appellate Defender Office that “Richard Helfrick put on a seminar on how to carve up a witness.”

One of three children, Helfrick graduated from Cass Tech High School in 1970 before earning his bachelor’s degree from Wayne State. His father, Philip, was a machinist and passed away in 1984 just before his beloved Detroit Tigers won the World Series. His mother, Rita, was an accountant and now resides in Linden, Mich. Helfrick and his wife, Lisa Bartlett, will celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in June. Bartlett is the case manager for U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds.

Helfrick has two children from his first marriage, Philip and Talia. His son, who will be 29 in June, is an entrepreneur, while his daughter is a second year law student at William & Mary after earning her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University.

A Detroit native, Helfrick said he is not a candidate to succeed Siefer on a permanent basis.

“The search for a new chief likely will take anywhere from six to 12 months,” Helfrick said. “My plan is to retire in two years, so it wouldn’t make much sense or be fair to the process for me to be involved as a candidate. I’m just honored to be chosen as acting chief until a successor to Miriam is named.”


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