On the surface, there was little to suggest that attorneys James L. White and A. Mark Vanderveen would ever subvert the legal system they...

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On the surface, there was little to suggest that attorneys James L. White and A. Mark Vanderveen would ever subvert the legal system they represented.

Both men had successful careers. White was an Edmonds city councilman, municipal judge and one-time state Supreme Court candidate, Vanderveen a former police officer and board member of a community college foundation.

They lived in inconspicuous, if comfortable, houses — White on a cul-de-sac in Edmonds and Vanderveen near Lake Washington in Lake Forest Park. There was no obvious ostentation: no sports cars, gaudy jewelry or yachts.

But a federal investigation has shown they helped protect a drug organization that moved hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana among the U.S., Latin America and Canada. Federal agents have shown White took at least $250,000 he knew came from drug deals, and passed $20,000 on to Vanderveen.

White, 49, has pleaded guilty to money laundering and Vanderveen, 46, to failing to report income to the Internal Revenue Service. Both men are scheduled to be sentenced Friday before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez.

As people close to White and Vanderveen struggle to understand what happened, the best explanation anyone can offer is that the lives the lawyers had built just weren’t enough. The easy money offered by drug dealers they represented — stacks of cash, wrapped in rubber bands — offered more, and when the time came to say no, to draw a line, they couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.

James L. White

Age: 49

1983: Obtained law degree

1996-2000: Edmonds City Council member

2000-July 2005: Municipal judge, city of Edmonds

2004: Ran for state Supreme Court

August 2005: Pleaded guilty to money laundering

A. Mark Vanderveen

Age: 46

1983-87: Campus police officer, University of Washington

Late 1980s: Obtained law degree

1989: Admitted to Washington state bar

Early 1990s: Deputy prosecutor, Snohomish County

August 2005: Pleaded guilty to failing to report income

Mike Carter

“Jim has never smoked a cigarette. He doesn’t drink,” said a bewildered Glenn Ranton, White’s father-in-law. “This is a man who loved the law, who would practice it for recreation if it weren’t his job.

“I guess he just got sucked in,” Ranton said.

And he took Vanderveen, a longtime friend, with him.

Both men declined to comment for this story.

What makes their fall even more remarkable is that both men sat in judgment of others accused of breaking the law. White was appointed as part-time municipal judge for the city of Edmonds in 2000 and Vanderveen, who considered White a mentor, filled in on the bench for him occasionally. Last year, White ran third out of six candidates for a seat on the state Supreme Court, winning nearly 160,000 votes.

Part-time city judges are allowed to have private legal practices as long as they don’t pose a conflict of interest with their judicial responsibilities.

Their friendship led White to turn to Vanderveen when he needed help representing defendants in the drug case that led to the charges.

White had taken a backpack stuffed with $100,000 — money he admitted he knew came from drugs — and left Vanderveen $10,000 in a paper bag on the judge’s chair last spring as part of a retainer to represent a drug courier. White handed over another $10,000 in a parking lot. Those payments are what triggered the money-laundering conviction.

The rest of the money White spent to pay off debts and take trips to India and Fiji.

In August, the government seized $150,000 from one of White’s investment accounts — money prosecutors say came from Robert Kesling, the drug ring’s Seattle connection and White’s client. Kesling has pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute cocaine and marijuana and is awaiting sentencing.

The drug operation was extensive. Federal agents, stopping one courier in Monroe last February, seized more than 340 pounds of cocaine valued at $34 million.

Unaware of involvement

White has revealed only part of his story to his friends and family, several of whom were unaware of the extent of his involvement in the drug ring.

White at one point followed Vanderveen’s client — with Vanderveen’s knowledge — in an effort to determine whether the man was cooperating with federal agents. White also was there when Vanderveen tried unsuccessfully to force his client to take a lie-detector test to find out what he knew about the disappearance of more than 450 pounds of marijuana belonging to Kesling. In reality, federal agents had seized the drugs.

Ranton said White had told him he was doing another attorney a favor and inadvertently got caught up in the investigation. The father-in-law was surprised when he was read a portion of the charges that stated White knew the money came from drugs. Likewise, White’s longtime friend, stock broker Dave Seidel, was upset when the charges were explained to him.

“What he told me was, ‘I defend criminals. … What the government is doing is trying to attack that,’ ” Seidel recalled.

Seidel said White also told him, “I’m guilty of what they say.”

“He’s as fine a man as I know,” said Seidel, who got to know White through church. “What’s so shocking is that he has lived such an exemplary life.”

White is a 1980 graduate of the University of Washington who obtained his law degree in 1983 from the former University of Puget Sound (now part of Seattle University). He is the father of three teenage boys and has been married to his wife, Loucinda, for more than 25 years, according to a voter information pamphlet from his 2004 Supreme Court run.

“I have always been dedicated to seeing that our legal system treats everyone equally and fairly,” White wrote. “I will uphold the law. … Justice must be available to all, not just those who can afford to pay for expensive representation.”

Seidel says White has lived those words. Seidel, a recovering alcoholic, says his friend has “provided pro-bono work for bums that I’ve dragged to his doorstep forever.”

It was White who took Seidel in when he was a drunk. Over the past 24 years, their families have vacationed and spent holidays together.

“I can’t explain it. Does Jim have a bullet in his soul, some secret demon? I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything that has hindered our friendship, including this,” Seidel said.

Former city councilman

In addition to his law practice, White is a former two-term Edmonds city councilman who chaired the city’s public safety committee. He was considered level-headed and engendered good will even from his political opponents.

Film producer Richard Marin ran against White in 1999, prompted by a group of citizens who were upset by White’s stand on land-use issues. But the political newcomer abandoned his campaign.

“I was ready to go after him, but found that I really liked him,” said Marin, who is now the council president. “We became friends.”

Marin said White told him that his arrest was the result of a “change in policy after Sept. 11” — that the federal government had begun targeting drug money as a possible funding source for terrorism.

“But once he was charged, his immediate reaction was to throw up his hands and take responsibility,” Marin said. “That would be characteristic of someone who does not do this sort of thing as a matter of course.”

White is helping prosecutors in the ongoing investigation into the drug ring, which has earned him a motion for leniency by the government. Convicted of money laundering, he could face up to 20 years in prison, though his sentence could be as short as 18 months. His license to practice law has been suspended and, with a felony conviction, disbarment is almost certain.

“To this day, the government has difficulty understanding why Mr. White did these things,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Friedman in documents filed earlier this week. “They are wholly at odds with his professional responsibilities, and have nothing to do with the meaningful representation of a client — any client.”

White blamed

Vanderveen, a Shoreline Rotarian and a member of the Shoreline Community College Foundation Board, has pleaded guilty to failing to report the $20,000 he received from White to represent Wesley Cornett, a drug courier. But his involvement in the drug organization didn’t stop with taking cash and hiding it from the IRS.

According to prosecutors, Vanderveen’s client, Cornett, was secretly cooperating with investigators when Vanderveen, at White’s behest, urged Cornett to take a polygraph to determine if he knew what had happened to the load of missing marijuana.

Vanderveen blames his fall on White. According to a sentencing document filed by his lawyer, Vanderveen felt White pulled him, unawares, into a legal and ethical morass.

“… Mark deferred to White’s request under the now mistaken belief his mentor and friend was acting in the best interest of both of their clients,” wrote Robert Chadwell, Vanderveen’s attorney. “It became crystal clear to Mark that his own conduct was off-base, but this realization came too late.”

Still, Vanderveen failed to report the money he took, a felony. Based on sentencing documents, he may spend as little as a month in prison. Like White, his license has been suspended and he faces disbarment.

According to his attorney, Vanderveen overcame a childhood of “modest means” to become a successful attorney and businessman. Along the way, he became an Eagle Scout, worked as a Japanese interpreter and at one point had to sacrifice money he’d saved for college to help out his parents.

Vanderveen attended the University of Washington sporadically in the 1980s, according to court documents, and worked in Alaska to raise money for his education. He fished and worked as a police officer in Unalaska and later at the University of Washington, from 1983 until 1987. He obtained his law degree from the University of Puget Sound and was admitted to the Washington Bar in 1989.

He prosecuted misdemeanors for two years at the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office, before leaving in 1993. Prosecutor Janice Ellis, who was a deputy in the office at the time, said Vanderveen developed a handbook on District Court prosecutions that is still used.

Friedman, the federal prosecutor, wrote that Vanderveen has been contrite and cooperative since being confronted with what the government found to be “deeply troubling” misconduct.

“For this,” Friedman said, “he deserves credit.”

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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