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Rick Kornfeld pursues white-collar criminal defense

Rick Kornfeld


Right after law school in 1990, Rick Kornfeld became an assistant US attorney in Chicago and prosecuted bank robberies, mail theft, fraud and other “garden-variety” federal crimes.

“Then I spent a couple of years prosecuting narcotics and violent crimes,” the attorney says in his 10th-floor office at Recht Kornfeld on Stout St. in downtown Denver. “I graduated.”

Like a character in the cult hit “The Wire,” Kornfeld worked on major wiretap cases that utilized federal firearms statutes to “decapitate the gang leadership in Chicago.”

Later assigned to a federal task force called Operation Trigger Lock, he pounded the hammer of firearms statutes into Cicero and Franklin Park, the suburban heart of Chicago’s gang activity.

“Back then, much like today, Chicago was experiencing a lot of gang-related murders,” Kornfeld says. Distanced by time, the 50-year-old still recalls those dicey days.

“I never felt threatened, not really,” he says. “This was pre-Internet, when it was much harder to track people down. We received briefings from US marshals about safety issues, and several of my colleagues carried guns. But not me.”

During his tenure as assistant US attorney, Kornfeld tried 20 federal cases and lost only one. “My success rate? As a prosecutor? It’s always good,” he laughs. “You have the luxury of choosing which cases to take and which ones to avoid.”

Kornfeld, a Denver native, returned to his hometown in 1994 with wife Julie Malek and their six-month-old daughter to be near family.

That’s when Kornfeld traded his prosecutorial role to sit at the defense table.

He specializes in white-collar criminal defense, corporate compliance and internal investigations — people often portrayed as bad guys without guns.

“Yes, I’m on the other side,” he says. “Completely on the other side. It’s very common for attorneys to make that switch.”

Aware of the societal distaste for white-collar criminals, particularly after clients lost their retirement savings while Wall Street execs earned phenomenal bonuses, Kornfeld divides the issue into two parts.

“Is there a negative view of lawyers? Yep!

“But as an attorney, you have an ethical obligation and a fidelity to the legal system. The cocktail party question is, ‘Would you ever represent a guilty person?’ And the answer is yes. Otherwise I’d be pretty hungry and pretty skinny.”

He smiles, cognizant that his last statement could join an already epic litany of lawyer slurs.

“The point of being a good defense lawyer is to force the government to do its job, which is proving its case beyond reasonable doubt,” Kornfeld says seriously.

“The government has all these resources, and I am the only person between the client and that powerful system.

“I ensure that clients get individualized and fair consideration.

“Am I popular representing someone who is considered a pariah?” He refers to a plethora of nasty voice messages and emails he’s received over the years: “Your client should rot in hell.” “How could you represent this scumbag? You should rot in hell too.”

Unfazed, Kornfeld says these anonymous communications are part of the territory.

“If you do your job properly, you’re respected by the prosecutors and the agents and the courts, because the system requires people on every side to perform their roles professionally, ethically, and well.”

Judaism is not only the formative genesis of America’s legal system, it informs Kornfeld both personally and as a defense lawyer. He’s not at all surprised that being an attorney or a judge “are very Jewish jobs.

“It’s text interpretation,” he says. “It’s you and me arguing about what we both believe in, and adding other sources and commentaries to buttress our arguments. I find it very similar to Talmud study.”

Kornfeld says that Judaism’s legal imprint, which forms the foundation of the American legal system, is more nuanced than precepts found in the Torah — “and it’s certainly not that simple in practice.”

Finding it almost impossible to separate his personal commitment to Judaism from his job, Kornfeld approaches the law through the prism of own experience.

“One of the things I think about all the time is trying to see the eyes of G-d in everyone you encounter, not just the people you like or share your opinions. I try to empathize with and understand the people I represent.

“We all have our prejudices, stereotypes and opinions. I try to step away from that and see the eyes of G-d: to see another person’s perspective, see what they’re all about and withhold judgment.”

While some people have no problem speaking freely with an attorney, Kornfeld’s non-judgmental approach often encourages reticent individuals to unburden themselves.

“I tell them, my job is not to judge you. That’s not my role. And I won’t judge you. This teaches me humility, to disdain narcissism and learn things in a broader context.

“What would be the best outcome? What does this person need? And what does the system demand as a whole?”

Kornfeld graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in 1986, followed by graduate study at Lincoln College, Oxford University. Journalism fascinated him, but he wasn’t really interested in doing small-town reporting.

He initially decided to go to law school to enlarge his reportorial options. 

“This was before television had these ubiquitous legal commentators,” he notes.

Kornfeld who earned his JD from the University of Michigan Law School, soon realized he was more interested in practicing the law than talking about it. “And ultimately I wanted to come back to Denver. I felt being a journalist was more limiting than being an attorney.”

After seven years at an established Denver firm, Kornfeld and Dan Recht opened Recht Kornfeld, PC.

A legal analyst for CNN, Bloomberg News, CBS, ABC, NBC, the LA Times and Colorado media outlets, Kornfeld says journalism was a solid springboard for his career as an attorney.

“Journalists are trained in the narrative — and that’s still what I do.”

Understanding the narrative is the first order of business for Kornfeld, who says that many white-collar crimes result from business deals gone sour rather than criminal intent.

“I don’t ask clients whether they are guilty right away,” he says. “But I must understand what happened.

“Once someone explains what occurred, you have an ethical duty to perform your job within the framework of the facts — a lawyerly way of saying that as soon as a person admits to doing something, your defenses are limited.”

An admission of guilt is not unusual in the legal world. 

When this happens in a defense context, attorneys must mount a vigorous strategy that forces the government to prove its case. 

That’s how the system works, says Kornfeld.

Those who feel they have been improperly accused will say “I didn’t do this” within two minutes of meeting the lawyer for the first time.

“Generally people who are innocent are shouting this at the top of their lungs from day one,” Kornfeld says.

But white-collar crimes are nuanced. Mitigating circumstances and misunderstandings abound, and clear behavioral trajectories are rare.

Kornfeld outlines an example.

“A man obtains two loans from a bank, one for Project A and one for Project B. But at some point he starts using money from Loan A for Project B. 

“Well, you can’t do that because you told the bank you would only use money from Loan A for Project A, not Project B.

“If you make a material misrepresentation to the bank, that’s bank fraud. You’ve committed a federal crime.”

It’s not uncommon for a client to come to the realization that he never set out to steal money. His sloppiness or negligence, not intent, resulted in violating the law.

There are clients who maintain they have not done anything wrong — but once the lawyer delves into the facts, and the law, “you realized he has exposed himself criminally.”

Intent is a crucial factor in the arena of white-collar crime, Kornfeld says. While opposing counsel is convinced that a person intentionally violated criminal statues, the defense lawyer disagrees.

“The law and the facts don’t support that conclusion. That’s what you’re fighting about. 

“In white-collar cases, you’re usually not arguing about what happened — whether the check was written or the deal went sour.

“What you’re really arguing about is individual intent, or lack thereof.”

Rick Kornfeld has taken his firm moral stance against the death penalty into the courtroom. Law schools don’t teach students how to save a human life. “We aren’t trained for this very tough emotional experience,” he says.

In 2003, preeminent anti-death penalty attorney David Lane asked Kornfeld to join him and Judy Lucero to lead the penalty phase for African- American Dante Owens, then 23.

Owens and his co-defendants were accused of murdering three people and critically injuring another during a drug deal that went bad. The survivor was paralyzed for life.

Kornfeld, who did not doubt Owens’ guilt, strenuously objected to the death sentence hanging over him. Lane or Lucero did not have to pressure Kornfeld to represent Owens in the penalty phase.

(In Colorado, a trial entails two parts: the guilt-innocence phase; and, if unanimously convicted by the jury, the penalty portion.)

The jury was out for only a few hours before returning a guilty verdict. Then Kornfeld presented an impassioned plea to the jury.

“I told them I was trained to do lots of things in law school. Begging for someone else’s life is not one of them. I was upset that I even had to defend someone against death.”

After hearing the arguments, the jury unanimously rejected the death penalty.

“Talk about the system being stacked against you and public opinion being stacked against you and families being upset with you,” he says. “It’s a thankless job, but a necessary one.

“There’s often a rush to judgment in a death penalty case,” Kornfeld says. “Our system as a whole precludes this dynamic. Sure, it would be a lot more expeditious to rush to judgment.

“But we’re not in China or Saudi Arabia or Russia, and we don’t do things that way. And all of us should be very proud that we don’t.”

An adjunct professor of law at DU’s Sturm College of Law, Kornfeld has earned the highest AV rating by Martindale Hubbell and annually makes The Best Lawyers in America, 5280’s list of Super Lawyers and Chambers USA and Partners in the area of white-collar criminal defense.

Accolades aside, he generously adjusts his acumen to the listener’s facility with legalese. He obfuscates neither words nor concepts. A master at his job, he seems to prefer the role of equal partner.

He adores his wife Julie and two daughters Maddie, 20, and 18-year-old Izzy, whose pictures are amply displayed in his office.

Is he satisfied with the life he’s chosen for himself? A big smile precedes his words.

“I have a lot of confidence and faith in our system,” he says. “The rule of law in the US is a meaningful, meaningful concept. The separation of powers is a meaningful, meaningful idea.”

Although he doesn’t rule out returning to the prosecution in the future “depending on the opportunity,” he clearly revels in serving the defense.

“A criminal defense attorney is a fun, interesting and fulfilling career for both myself and my clients,” Kornfeld says. “As a private practitioner, I have a lot of freedom I do not take for granted.

“And I live in a way that is fully consistent with my Jewish values, both personally and professionally. So yes, I’d say I’m very happy.”

The defense rests.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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