As the jury deliberated in the Forest Park Medical Center bribery trial, Ed Tomko was one of the lawyers on a very short leash.
Tomko represents Mac Burt, a former administrator at the now-defunct private hospital. He says this seven-week trial – one of the biggest healthcare fraud trials of this generation – may well be his last. And while he waited for the jury to return, he sat down with The Texas Lawbook to discuss his very remarkable career.
From both sides of the courtroom, Tomko has tried some of the biggest white-collar criminal trials. While with the Justice Department in the 1980s, he investigated and prosecuted Bert Lance, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a close friend of President Jimmy Carter.
Lance, a Georgia banker, was accused of illegally using his bank ownership to obtain millions in personal loans. Although Lance was acquitted, Tomko said it was still “an interesting case.”
While at the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, he served as lead prosecutor on the First Jersey Securities penny stock case. And after he went into private practice, he worked on the Enron Broadband trial defending former executive Rex Shelby.
He also headed the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commissions’ Houston division, served as the DOJ’s deputy chief of banking and securities in the criminal fraud section, and headed its savings & loan task force in Dallas.
Currently at Dykema, Tomko has also spent his private practice years at Doke & Riley, Baker Botts and Akin Gump. He had his own firm, Curran Tomko Tarski, before joining Dykema in 2013.
But he began his career at a small firm in his hometown of Pittsburgh. A fun fact: “From my firm’s window, I could see my freshman dorm window in college,” he said.
Tomko said he decided to become a lawyer after he “didn’t do well in organic chemistry” in college. A fraternity brother at Washington & Jefferson College suggested he go to law school instead of pursuing med school.
He later joined the Pittsburgh District Attorney’s office, where he spent three-and-a-half years before joining the Department of Justice. He recalls one particular week when he showed up to court on a Monday with a more senior attorney to work on small, non-jury cases like DUIs. Tomko showed up again Tuesday, but this time, the senior attorney did not show up.
On Wednesday, he was told to go to Judge Samuel Strauss’ courtroom. When Tomko walked in, “the judge is on the bench, the policeman is there, and the defendant is at the table.
“I walk in the door and the judge said, ‘Are you ready to open?’ ” Tomko said. “For my opening, the jury and I read the statute of the complaint together so we both knew what he (the defendant) was charged for.”
Asked what the defendant was charged for, Tomko said “I have absolutely no idea.”
Tomko’s time at the DA’s office was where he learned how to try a case, but “you don’t learn how to put a case together,” he said. “That’s why I went to the DOJ: to get experience in building cases.”
He couldn’t pinpoint a single best day on the job; it’s always when the jury returns a verdict.
“Every jury verdict is very exciting because you have no idea what’s going to happen,” he says. “Sometimes, you’re pleasantly surprised and sometimes you’re devastated.”
One valuable lesson he’s learned as a trial lawyer is “before trial starts you can’t wait for it to start. But once it starts, you can’t wait for it to be over.”
The practice of law has changed dramatically since Tomko’s days as a baby lawyer in the early 1970s. He says he was making as much as the private practice lawyers when he started out as a government lawyer. By the 1980s, that was no longer the case.
In today’s era, he says the biggest change is the continual build of the mega firms. Though he doesn’t know what will happen, he says the next change in the profession will come if accounting firms successfully get into the practice of law.
Asked what he thinks of the increasing difficulty for young lawyers today to gain valuable trial experience, he says it’s “sad, especially on the civil side.”
“They’re not getting into trial – there’s not enough for them to be second and third chairs to work their way up,” he said. “It’s really hard. I think the skills of trial lawyers are going to diminish because of the lack of exposure.”
What’s his advice for any young lawyers wanting to become trial lawyers?
“Do well in organic chemistry,” he says.