His demise was sensational. His redemption has been quiet and measured.
It took Gary Modafferi 13 years to be reinstated to the Hawaii bar. He had to prove himself again and again, answering questions about what he does in his free time, what he learned in treatment and what his family support system is like. After hearings, testimony and a report from an investigative committee, on Nov. 29 Modafferi reclaimed a part of what he had lost.
When he talks about having to prove his worth, he doesn’t sound angry. He doesn’t sound proud. He’s just matter-of-fact.
"For all the responsibility that a lawyer has to clients, it makes sense that they have to prove they are emotionally and responsibly equipped to serve clients," Modafferi said in a telephone interview from his office in Las Vegas.
In 1997, most still thought meth users were a certain type, certainly not suit-wearing professionals. Back then, people didn’t believe addiction could take hold almost instantly.
And then Modafferi was arrested, and he became a symbol of the terrible reach of that drug. It was shocking that a guy with so much going on could get hooked.
Modafferi came to Hawaii in 1983 after being recruited by Honolulu Prosecutor Charles Marsland right out of Boston’s Suffolk University Law School. He spent 11 years as a deputy prosecuting attorney, becoming branch chief of a newly created narcotics division. In 1994, he went into private practice focusing on criminal defense.
During those years, he was quoted in the newspaper and on TV news just about every other week. He took high-profile cases and was never the sort of attorney to duck a reporter’s question.
"Some lawyers love publicity for publicity’s sake. I always loved publicity for good cases. I love to talk about the client or the case or the law. I didn’t want it to be about me," he said.
On Dec. 7, 1997, the then-38-year-old attorney was arrested and charged with distribution of .69 grams of crystal meth to a government informant. His name was all over local news along with long analysis pieces about this new image of an educated, successful "ice" user.
The arrest of the high-profile attorney was even shocking to drug users.
"My roommate in Hina Mauka drug treatment looked at me and said, ‘Wow, I saw you on TV getting arrested,’ and I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. I finally gotta put down the pipe,’" Modafferi said.
He was allowed to continue to practice law while awaiting trial, and he used that time to close cases and transfer clients to other attorneys. He resigned from the Hawaii bar in December 1998. Later that month, he was sentenced to 90 days in prison, a $10,000 fine, three years of supervised release, 500 hours of community service and six months under house arrest.
Though convicted of drug distribution, Modafferi vehemently maintains that he never sold or facilitated the sale of drugs.
"The charge of distribution, though technically applicable, involved the simple use of drugs with another person; specifically a government informant," his attorney, Scott Collins, wrote in Modafferi’s application for reinstatement
He spent three months in Yankton Federal Prison Camp in South Dakota and then went to San Francisco, where he did 800 hours of community service with a substance abuse program. He has gone through two residential and two rigorous after-care drug treatment programs. In all those years, he never failed a drug test, never got in trouble with the law, never even got a traffic ticket.
Then, while working in San Francisco in 2002, Modafferi’s life took another turn when he was diagnosed with cancer.
"I couldn’t swallow," he said. "I went to all these doctors and it took months before they found I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma."
Modafferi was treated with an experimental genetic-marker drug, and then chemo and radiation.
"I had this little Doogie Howser doctor and I told him I had gone to the medical library and looked up my diagnosis and figured out I had a one-in-two chance of survival. He told me, ‘Look, I shouldn’t go to the law library to tell you how to try a case. You stay out of the medical library and let me worry about treating you.’"
Modafferi has been in remission past the five-year mark. He follows a disciplined workout regimen developed by Navy SEALs trainer Mel Spicer and says he’s in excellent health.
He moved to Las Vegas in 2003 to work for prominent Nevada attorney Dominic Gentile. In 2004, he started working for the law firm Cristalli and Saggese as a legal researcher. Though trial lawyers notoriously despise slogging through bookish research and writing long papers, Modafferi says the work has made him a better attorney and has taught him patience.
He got permission to take the Nevada bar exam in 2003, but then was told he had to regain his privilege to practice law in Hawaii first. He filed a petition for reinstatement in Hawaii four years ago and made his way through all the procedures, inquiries, investigations and hearings.
Being reinstated to the Hawaii bar is just one piece of this new chapter in Modafferi’s life. Now 51, he is planning to apply to the Nevada bar and is working on plans to establish a practice in Hawaii next year. The highlight, though, is that he and his fiancee are expecting a baby girl next month.
"I’m so excited," he said.
He’d still rather talk about interesting cases he’s working on rather than his own story, but he acknowledges that, for a time in Hawaii, he represented the shocking reach of meth. It took him 13 years to come back from that and to recast himself as the face of second chances.
"No one is subject to complete devastation. Everyone can pick themselves up."