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Lawyer Joe Groia (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Lawyer Joe Groia (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Lunch

For embattled Bre-X lawyer Joe Groia, the trial isn't over Add to ...

The joke may have cost him, as the humour was lost on the Law Society, which cited it as evidence he lacks remorse. I choose a bottle of the red, Incivility – and the bill later shows an $80 charge.

“I taste some cherry and some raspberry in there, not like crap raspberry jam, more seductive than that,” Mr. Groia says, confiding that managing the winery has been a welcome distraction from the disciplinary proceeding and his other personal trials.

His wife, Susan, has been (so far successfully) battling a severe form of breast cancer, even coming to the Law Society hearing room to support him with her hair falling out. “When Susan got sick, it made me realize how a lot of this stuff really didn’t matter all that much.”

But the Law Society fight still clearly matters a great deal. He has spent months of his own time on it, and hired veteran litigator Earl Cherniak to represent him. In all, he says, the fight has cost him about $1-million in fees and lost time.

Mr. Groia is no stranger to fights. A lightweight, precocious kid raised in a tough Italian neighbourhood near Bloor and Lansdowne Streets in Toronto’s west end, he has always been a bit of an outsider in the clubby world of Bay Street law, a position he blames on his time as the head of enforcement at the OSC in the 1980s. He shook up the regulator, breaking new ground by taking on landmark cases against establishment players, such as Canadian Tire and Gordon Capital.

He remembers early on having to settle a case for the commission with legendary litigator John J. Robinette, then approaching 80, and meeting him in a McCarthy Tétrault LLP boardroom. “I was awestruck,” he recalls. “It took us about five minutes to make a deal. I’d like to think it wasn’t a bad deal for the commission. Frankly, if he’d said, ‘Joe, I’d like your shirt, too,’ I would have given it to him … I was a fifth-year lawyer, and here I was dealing with one of the legends of the bar, and he’s calling me Mr. Groia.”

At his disciplinary hearing, being questioned by his lawyer, Mr. Cherniak, Mr. Groia recounted this anecdote and suddenly had to stop. He was overcome with emotion, his voice cracked, and he took deep breaths.

He remains proud his time at the OSC, but he says it cost him any hope of landing a job at Bay Street’s top firms, dubbed the “Seven Sisters,” when he left in 1990. His contacts at the big firms told him that senior partners quashed the idea of hiring him: “One of them, we went out and got drunk, and he said he actually raised it with a client, and the client said, ‘If you hire that son of a bitch we’ll take all our work away.’”

He landed in Heenan Blaikie’s then-new Toronto office. But he would leave a decade later to start his own boutique white-collar-crime defence firm as the controversial Bre-X case took over his practice and Heenan Blaikie, he said, got “uncomfortable” with it.

His status as an outsider in the profession, he believes, is partly to blame for the predicament he is in now. “I believe that the case never would have gotten to where it got to, but for that reputation,” he says at one point. Later, he adds: “I think they thought I was impertinent. I think the Law Society believes that I am a vocal thorn in their side.”

But it is those outsider and street-fighter instincts that attract clients accused of white-collar crimes, whose reputations and livelihoods and, sometimes, freedom are at stake. Mr. Felderhof testified at Mr. Groia’s disciplinary hearing in 2011 that he didn’t want a lawyer who called his colleague on the other side his “learned friend,” as is customary. “In the end, I would be the defendant,” Mr. Felderhof told the Law Society panel. “Who’s my friend?”

Mr. Groia says he still speaks often with the former Bre-X geologist, who told The Globe in 2011 that he runs a small convenience store and restaurant with his new wife in the Philippines. He still owes Mr. Groia $2-million in legal fees, a bill no one expects to be paid.

Mr. Groia agrees that someone, not Mr. Felderhof, got away with a massive fraud in the Bre-X scandal. He speculates, as others have over the years, that perhaps Michael de Guzman, the Bre-X geologist who apparently took his own life by jumping out of a helicopter flying over the Borneo jungle in 1997, is still alive.

Despite the mess it has left him in, Mr. Groia sees Bre-X as the finest work he has ever done.

“At the end of the day, I know what I did for John Felderhof … and the Law Society is not going to take that away from me,” he says. “And however it turns out, after I have fought with them for a good long time, I am always going to say, I have no regrets.”

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