Syracuse, NY — A Syracuse lawyer, who has probably handled more criminal defense cases than anyone else recent years, is in the middle of a high-stakes battle with the district attorney’s office over his own reputation in the wake of a dismissed perjury charge against him.
Robert Baska, 61, of Kirkville, who until recently ran the top-grossing assigned counsel law firm in Syracuse, faced near-ruin after the DA accused him of conspiring with a client to lie to a judge. A grand jury indicted him on perjury, conspiracy and related charges.
But a judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to legally accuse Baska of lying. The only witness? The client himself, a repeat offender who has admitted lying himself, Judge John Crandall ruled. (The judge was brought in front out of town because Baska, over many years, has appeared before nearly every judge in Syracuse qualified to hear the case.)
The dismissed indictment accuses Baska of conspiring with the client to lie in sworn testimony. Baska was charged as an accomplice — not as one who lied under oath himself.
But his client was the only witness who testified about a conspiracy between the two men at grand jury, the judge ruled. Under law, a criminal charge requires corroboration — some other evidence besides the word of a co-conspirator.
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Since that decision in January, Baska has resumed his defense work and continues to handle cases against the very prosecutors who believe he should be a convicted criminal.
Behind the scenes, Baska is firing back with an expected lawsuit against DA William Fitzpatrick’s office, accusing prosecutors of maliciously indicting him to stifle his “outstanding” defense work, specifically in retaliation for his role in a high-profile case during 2019′s election season.
“Baska’s indictment was in total and unequivocal retaliation against him as an outstanding defense attorney who does and did his job prior to the erroneous and malicious indictment that was handed down by a Grand Jury of Onondaga County,” Baska’s lawyer, Jarrod Smith, wrote in pre-lawsuit paperwork.
While Baska seeks to sue the DA for trying to ruin his career, prosecutors are moving forward on an appeal that aims to get the indictment reinstated. If successfully prosecuted, Baska could end up with a felony record and possible jail or prison time.
Assistant prosecutor Caleb Petzoldt has vowed to appeal the judge’s ruling, arguing there was enough evidence to take Baska to trial on charges he lied under oath. DA Fitzpatrick declined further comment on the case.
In virtual court Thursday, both sides met via Skype with Judge Crandall to decide which paperwork should be considered by the appellate court.
Smith had previously vowed to sue the county DA’s office for malicious prosecution. During court, he confirmed that process had already started.
Legally, Baska has to file what’s called a notice of claim before launching a full-scale lawsuit against the DA’s office. Upon request, Smith emailed a copy of the notice of claim to Syracuse.com following Thursday’s court appearance.
The notice cites a high-profile case involving one of Baska’s clients, from 2019. The child sex case against Austin Pratt was eventually tossed by a judge — after Baska’s arguments — based on perceived errors by prosecutors. (Pratt’s state case remains tied up on appeal, but he has been arrested separately by federal authorities for the same crime.)
The dismissal of Pratt’s case came during Fitzpatrick’s reelection campaign against defense lawyer Charles Keller. And Keller cited the judge’s ruling against prosecutors in that case as a sign of DA office mismanagement.
Baska alleges that the DA decided to go after him because of his work on Pratt’s behalf.
“The Indictment against Mr. Baska is retaliatory by the Onondaga County District Attorney, William Fitzpatrick’s malicious prosecution of Baska because of the Austin Pratt case,” Smith wrote in the notice of claim.
The criminal case against Baska led to numerous articles on Syracuse.com, subjecting the lawyer to treatment “like a common criminal” and emotional distress from the possibility of losing his law license, his job and possibly a sentence in state prison, the notice continues.
The indictment included news articles that dredged up Baska’s history of questionable behavior as a surgeon years ago. Baska’s medical career ended when he lost his medical license in Vermont over a sexual relationship with a patient and other “unprofessional” behavior.
He later went to law school and eventually settled in Syracuse, beginning his practice in 2008. He’s turned into a prolific defense lawyer, taking assigned cases — from relatively minor offenses and DWIs to big sex cases.
In 2017, Baska’s law office was paid $246,415 to represent poor clients, nearly $30,000 more than the second-highest paid assigned counsel law office, according to the assigned counsel program’s tax records. Those payouts reflect all of the billable hours and other services submitted and approved by the program. Baska split the work that year with an associate.
Prior to his medical career, Baska served in the U.S. Army with the 82nd Airborne, including action during the First Gulf War, according to his biography. He also notes his prolific writings, from DWI and criminal defense books to science fiction.
Staff writer Douglass Dowty can be reached at [email protected] or 315-470-6070.