An Erie lawyer’s career is at risk after he appeared at a court hearing high on cocaine.
The lawyer, Nathaniel Strasser, is facing suspension, disbarment or other disciplinary action for being under the influence of cocaine at preliminary hearing for a client on Nov. 2, 2022, when Strasser was working as a part-time assistant public defender for Erie County.
A Pennsylvania State Police trooper reported the suspected cocaine use and Strasser admitted to it, according to disciplinary records and Strasser’s statements at a disciplinary hearing on Monday.
At the hearing, a three-lawyer panel of the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that Strasser’s use of cocaine violated two rules of professional conduct for lawyers in Pennsylvania.
The panel said that Strasser represented a client despite being mentally or physically unable to do so, and said he had committed a criminal act “that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”
Strasser, 44, a lawyer since 2007, was not charged with a crime for his cocaine use, but he acknowledged at the hearing that charges do not need to be filed for a crime to occur. He also unsuccessfully argued that the panel had no evidence that his use of cocaine on the day of the hearing hurt his ability to represent the client.
Strasser likened cocaine to “caffeine on steroids” and told the disciplinary panel that, in small doses, cocaine can make the user more alert and attentive and “have a positive effect on someone’s cognitive ability.”
“I admit I had cocaine in my system that day. I admit that having cocaine in my system is not good,” Strasser, who represented himself on Monday, told the disciplinary panel at the 50-minute hearing, which was livestreamed from Pittsburgh. “I am not proud of having cocaine in my system. It is not good. But it does not rise to the level of a violation.”
Strasser’s argument led the disciplinary counsel who is prosecuting the case, Daniel S. White, to remark to the panel that Strasser’s primary defense was to tell the panel that “cocaine makes him a better lawyer.”
The next job for the hearing panel is to recommend a penalty for Strasser to the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court, a process that will take months to complete. The recommendations can include disbarment, a suspension or a public or private reprimand.
The panelists are Jason A. Medure, of New Castle, and Pittsburgh lawyers Ashley Ardoin Piovesana and Michael T. Della Vecchia.
The hearing panel will send its proposed sanctions to the Disciplinary Board after the panel gets a transcript of Monday’s hearing and after it reviews post-hearing briefs from Strasser and White. The Disciplinary Board’s will then decide the any punishment. The board’s rulings can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Lawyer pleads for leniency over his cocaine use
Though Strasser spent most of Monday’s hearing contending that his cocaine use did not run afoul of professional standards for lawyers, he argued for leniency after the hearing panel announced that it had found him in violation of the two rules. He said he did not deserve a suspension or disbarment, that he was no longer using cocaine and that he would enter whatever drug-monitoring program the panel might suggest.
“I am not an addict,” Strasser said at the hearing. “I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs anymore.”
Strasser’s use of cocaine has already cost him his $37,000-a-year job as a part-time assistant public defender for Erie County, a post he had held for two years and five months, according to county records. The Public Defender’s Office fired him after he tested positive cocaine following the preliminary hearing for the client on Nov. 2, 2022, according to records filed in the disciplinary case.
The records show that Strasser submitted to the drug test at the request of Erie County Public Defender Nicole Sloane Kondrlik. She learned of Strasser’s suspected cocaine use from the Pennsylvania state trooper who was at the preliminary hearing, according to the disciplinary records.
Sloane Kondrlik declined to comment for this story, citing the confidentiality of personnel issues. Strasser did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Before he was an assistant public defender, Strasser was an assistant district attorney for Erie County from 2007 to 2016. He unsuccessfully ran for a district magistrate post in Erie County in 2015. Strasser maintains a private practice in Erie.
State trooper says lawyer’s behavior made him suspicious
On Nov. 2, 2022, the day he was reported to be under the influence of cocaine, Strasser was assigned to represent an indigent client in a DUI case, according to the disciplinary records. The hearing was before District Judge Lisa Ferrick in Harborcreek Township.
Strasser drove to the hearing, according to the records and testimony at Monday’s hearing. Upon his arrival, Strasser drew the attention of the state trooper who had made the arrest in the DUI case, Christopher Weber, a specialist in the recognition of illegal drugs. Weber appeared as a witness for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel on Monday and was the only witness to testify.
Weber told the hearing panel that he suspected Strasser was on drugs at the preliminary hearing because he was wearing sunglasses inside the courtroom, had blood but no hair in his right nostril and was behaving in a nervous manner. Strasser was constantly checking his brief case and was sweating profusely, Weber testified.
“He was very hyperactive, fidgety,” Weber testified. “He couldn’t sit still. He was going all over the place. It was like he was bouncing off the walls.”
When Strasser took off his sunglasses, “His pupils were so large I could not tell you what color his eyes were,” Weber testified. He said the blood in Strasser’s nostril was “a clear indication of someone who snorts narcotics.”
Weber testified that he told Strasser he could not let Strasser drive because Weber believed he was under the influence of cocaine. Weber said he did not search Strasser and did not charge him with possession of a controlled substance. He said he does not file possession charges based only on a suspect having a controlled substance in their system.
Weber said he telephoned the Public Defender’s Office about Strasser, and that two lawyers arrived at the district’s judge’s office to drive Strasser and his car back to Erie. Back at the Public Defender’s Office, Strasser submitted to the drug test at the request of Sloane Kondrlik, his boss. He tested positive and was fired several days later.
Strasser at the hearing did not dispute that he failed the drug test and was fired, just as he did not dispute that he used cocaine leading up to preliminary hearing on Nov. 2, 2022. He repeatedly challenged the view that his use of cocaine — or any use of cocaine, in low doses — could be considered harmful. He said his dosage level on that day was not established through the drug test, but he said cocaine in some respects could be considered “like caffeine on steroids.”
Weber commented on cross-examination that cocaine is on the schedule of controlled substance for a reason.
“The negative side effects of cocaine — that is why it is scheduled as it is and is illegal to obtain,” Weber testified.
Strasser continued with the line of argument that cocaine could be considered a beneficial enhancement for some tasks. In an apparent attempt to put his argument in a historical perspective, Strasser asked Weber, “Do you know how cocaine was first introduced to western civilization?”
White, the prosecutor, objected that the question was not relevant.
The panelists agreed, and Strasser was forced to move on.
Another disciplinary matter: Erie lawyer gets public reprimand over handling of $6,000 fee in criminal case
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie lawyer faces discipline for showing up at hearing high on cocaine
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