Little Corruption or Little Jail Time? Wyser – No Time=Right result?; Conour Redux, again!

What is the cost for fixing tickets?

How corrupt is a NJ judge who fixes tickets for her “significant other?”  Corrupt enough to get kicked off the bench, and have her license suspended it appears.  Former judge Wanda Molina already lost her position as chief municipal judge, and the NJ Supreme Court will decide on whether and how long to suspend her license to practice law.  The disciplinary prosecutors are asking for a 2-3 year suspension, but others expect maybe a six month layoff.

Four other municipal court judges were also caught up in the ticket fixing scandal, and resolved their charges.

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Was Wyser’s Punishment the Right Result?

The Indy Star story starts: “Former deputy prosecutor David Wyser’s after-the-fact acceptance of $2,500 for approving the early release of a convicted killer was a “wobble” in an otherwise unblemished career of public service, federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker said [Nov. 25] as she sentenced Wyser to three years of probation.”

Paula Willoughby, convicted of murdering her husband, was sentenced to 70 years, but after lobbying by her defense lawyer (who appears to have offered a bribe and has not been charged yet) the deputy prosecutor David Wyser agreed to reduce the sentence to the 18 years she had served.  That was followed by a “campaign contribution” of $2500 from the father of Willoughby. The timing was apparently critical.  In 2006 Wyser decided that a sentence modification was appropriate “once she served the minimum time” she could have been sentenced to, which was the 18 years, in 2009. When that time came, Wyser filed the paperwork. He was campaigning for Hamilton County Prosecutor at that time, and says the contribution came when he needed some campaign cash.

The victim’s family thought a travesty occurred when Federal Judge Sarah Barker ordered six months sentence of house arrest and three years probation (reports do not identify the underlying sentence that would be imposed if Wyser violates the terms of the probation).

Judge Barker comment that Wyser helped with investigations into the defense lawyer who offered the contribution and Carl Brizzi, Wyser’s former boss. No charges have been filed against either person, and none apparently will be filed against Brizzi.

A check today shows that Wyser’s law license is still “Active in Good Standing.”

My take: The law license matter is incredible.  That should have been resolved by now with a disbarment or resignation.  Interesting when/if it will occur.  The sentence is a more difficult matter to decide. Judge Barker is not a “softee” on anyone. Her rationale makes some sense – if the law license is gone.  But there are lawyers who do crimes similar to non-lawyers, and who get more favorable treatment. Sorry fellow lawyers, but the Courts should hold us to the standards of the law.  Exceptions ought to be the rare event, and it does not seem like it is.

That is the troubling trend.

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Another Round for Conour?

This blog has covered the William Conour matter in some detail. With six previous stories, his sentencing and McKinney Law stripping his name off the wall of the atrium, I thought I was done with him.  Today the federal prosecutors are talking out loud about the possibility of appealing the 10 year sentence he got for stealing millions from widows, orphans, and severely injured clients.   A notice of appeal was filed last week in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The sentencing judge said at the time of sentencing that the time was set so there is a possibility that Conour will make some restitution to the victims. At 66 years of age there is some concern that a longer sentence will make that impossible. But there is the troubling trend.

A check on the status of Conour’s license:  Resigned.

No published report from the ISBA on the impact on the Client’s Financial Assistance Fund.

More to come.

Breathing Space – IND lawyers and 1st Amendment Rights; Lawyers and Child Porn – Problem in CA; Rule 1.8(a) will be Enforced.

CONGRATULATIONS TO SUPREME COURT

Faced with a tough question about the interplay between the rights of a group of defendants to a fair trial, and the feelings of a trial court judge, when her possible bias is pointed out, the Court, in one of two disciplinary cases filed against the lawyers who were trying to protect their clients, under the Rules, found no violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. This issue was raised here a couple weeks ago.

Thomas M. Dixon, of Osceola, outside of South Bend, together with David A. Wemhof, of South Bend, was accused of violating Rule 8.2(a) for the contents of his Motion for Recusal.   The Rule  says;  “A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge.”  The Hearing Officer found a violation, and Dixon submitted that ruling to the full Court.  The Court in a 4-1 opinion held no violation occurred. 

The concern of lawyers in representing clients who fear a biased judge would have been palpable if the court said that an allegation of bias is proof of “a statement..false… concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge.”  Rule 11 requires that the lawyer endorse the statements, but most are statements of opinion, most often the opinion of the litigant, who is the one with the right to a fair hearing.

In this case, the judge who was asked to recuse was also the judge who ruled on the request, and who filed the complaint.  And Dixon did good legal work here. The Court distinguishes this case from the Wilkens case of 2003, showing the efforts Dixon put into supporting the statements that were made about the need for the trial judge to recuse herself.

Good for the Court.  There are some limits on the authority of the Disciplinary Commission to protect judges from the rights of litigants through the attacks on their lawyers.

Let’s see if this portends any outcome in the Wemhof or Ogden cases now in the process.

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Child Porn, and other automatic disqualifiers 

Gary Grant, a Cal lawyer, was found by the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to have used email to register for a PayPal account, in order to purchase and download child pornography.  With over 100,000 images deemed pornographic, ICE found 19 photos and one video of youths who appeared to be between the ages of 14-16.

Grant pleaded “innocent” but later admitted that a few photos of underage girls were downloaded, and promptly deleted.  Such a deletion does not remove the photo from the computer.  He pleaded guilty to one charge of felony possession, and the prosecutors dismissed two other charges: the sentence was 90 days served three years probation and sex registration for life.  Grant later violated his probation, and spent an additional 183 days in jail.

The Cal State Bar automatically suspended Grant’s license, pending hearing. The Bar Court trial judge recommended disbarment, but the Bar Review Department later recommended a suspension for a period. Bar Counsel appealed the recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which at this time has not ruled.

The question before the court is the “moral turpitude per se standard” California has for lawyers.  If a lawyer is convicted of a crime that qualifies as moral turpitude per se, the disciplinary proceedings are a summary disbarment.

The article on this in the California Lawyer (callawyer.com) describes the hearsay evidence problems, since the Bar Counsel did not have access to the images, but had a computer analyst “describe the images” she had viewed. The appeal is from the Review Department panel’s conclusion that felony possession of child pornography meets the moral turpitude per se standard.  As Grant was charged with having 2 out of 100,000 images that qualified, and there was no “proof that Grant sought out child pornographic images, displayed a sexual interest in children, or otherwise intended to harm a minor” according to Judge Catherine Purcell, and it was a case of first impression, the decision was for suspension.

The history of Cal discipline for child pornography cases is described in the article.  The conclusion, in the 18 cases since 2007, none of them have been summarily disbarred.  There have been 33 summary disbarment actions in the 2011-2013 period, most for forgery, grand theft or other frauds.

The question arises: What is the purpose of the Bar Disciplinary Process?  To punish bad people who hold licenses to practice, or to protect the public?

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AUTOMATIC FEE INCREASES ARE SUBJECT TO RULE 1.8(a)

Ellen Corcella started working on a case in 2009, with a written fee agreement providing for hourly fees of $175 per hour.  When the case concluded in 2011, she billed the clients more than 60 hours at her then rate of $200 per hours.  Client files grievance, she refunds the excess of $1580 and all is well, right?

Not quite.  During the representation, the Court found that Corcella changed the fee agreement twice. The first time to a contingent agreement, then to a blended contingent and hourly fee agreement.  At no time did she give the Rule 1.8(a) warning.*

Let’s go over this again.  If you change a fee agreement, written or not, that does, or may favor you as the lawyer, you must give a Rule 1.8(a) advisory to the client.  Tell the client to take time to obtain an independent professional legal opinion that the transaction is fair and reasonable to the client.  You also must determine that the modification is fair and reasonable, and is understood by the client.  Finally, get the approval of the change in writing.  Follow the rule, with due regard for that part of the Comment as applies.  See below.

*  Rule 1.8. Conflict of Interest: Current Clients: Specific Rules

(a)    A lawyer shall not enter into a business transaction with a client or knowingly acquire an ownership, possessory, security or other pecuniary interest adverse to a client unless:

(1)    the transaction and terms on which the lawyer acquires the interest are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client;

(2)    the client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent legal counsel on the transaction; and

(3)    the client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.

Comment 1 to Rule 1.8(a), in part:

It does not apply to ordinary initial fee arrangements between client and lawyer, which are governed by Rule 1.5, although its requirements must be met when the lawyer accepts an interest in the client’s business or other nonmonetary property as payment of all or part of a fee. Paragraph (a) applies when a lawyer seeks to renegotiate the terms of the fee arrangement with the client after representation begins in order to reach a new agreement that is more advantageous to the lawyer than the initial fee arrangement…

Trust Advice; Old Joke – Who goes to jail at the end of the day?; Cameras – get you canned – NSFW

Trust Advice: Have good witnesses

Out of state cases this week.  A prominent NY lawyer got a reprimand when his trust account checks bounced. Usually a more serious matter, the highly regarded lawyer got reprimanded instead of suspended. He pled ignorance, and stupidity. The NY Appellate Div. found the abuse was “non-venal” and the result of the aforementioned ignorance and stupidity.  Neal H. Rosenberg  was lucky enough to have great witnesses:

A former Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, and a Justice of the Supreme Court, both testified that they had retained respondent to represent them and their respective children. Both Justices stated that respondent is known to be trustworthy, honest and a tremendously fine attorney, possessing great skill, integrity, and character. 

Have good friends, do non-venal things, and do no harm to clients, you might avoid the more serious punishment that others get.

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Bribing a Witness?

I repeat an old joke I first heard in law school, from the late Pat Baude: “At the end of the day, a lawyer’s first duty is to make sure that only the client goes to jail.”

Cranston Rhode Island’s Gerard Donley, a well-known criminal defense lawyer based out of Providence, today was found guilty of obstruction of justice, bribery and conspiracy to bribe a witness…

reports the Cranston Patch.  It promptly resulted in an Interim Suspension of Donley’s license to practice law.

The conviction was June 13, the Order of Suspension came out Aug. 6.

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NSFW – Lawyer gets himself canned

In case you live in a virtual cave, you may not know that the initials NSFW means Not Safe For Work, a euphemism for there might be something in this link that your office spam blocker will reject, or your staff will be surprised to hear coming from your computer.  It also is probably not safe for nearby children.

Lawyers are often called on to sit through boring, even mundane public hearings.  If you represent a board that holds public meetings, there is a certain “professional look” you adopt.  Something between interested and bored, engaged but not transcribing the comments.

Here Long Island NY lawyer Chris Kirby offers the wrong look.  He smirks.  And when called out about it during the meeting, it gets worse. The hearing appears to on be a cable channel broadcast.  But the cell phone camera goes on in the parking lot.  If inappropriate language offends, I suggest you ignore the link.

By the way, the lawyer and his firm lose the client school board.

h/t Gary Welsh and Advance Indiana blog.

Lawyers = Icarus?; Hubris?; Conoured

An Icarus moment?

Paul Bergerin, a once prominent NJ lawyer, former state and federal prosecutor and recently a criminal defense lawyer was convicted by a jury on 23 counts, including Conspiracy to Murder – a witness, and Racketeering, in the operation of his law firm. He has been sitting in jail since 2009 on the charges, had one trial declared a mistrial, and faces life in prison now.

When the lede starts “once prominent attorney” you know the Icarus paradox is involved.

H/T Tim Kalamaros

Being the Investigator gets you Suspended

David Schalk made a serious mistake, he forgot his role as a lawyer.  Lawyers are not investigators, and should not make themselves witnesses, or more importantly criminal defendants. One sage said “Whatever you do, make sure the client goes to jail, and you go to lunch.”

Schalk had a client charged with possession of Meth. He apparently did not think that the confidential informant was legitimate, and was selling drugs himself.  So Schalk set up a drug buy by two of his criminal defendant’s friends, plus a juvenile. Schalk provided the funds and a recorder, and told the agents that “it is all legit.”

After the “agents” successfully bought some drugs they smoked some, kept some of Schalk’s money, and gave him a folded newspaper that they said contained the drugs.   Schalk tried to get law enforcement to make arrests, and so they arrested the lawyer Schalk. for Conspiracy to Possess Marijuana, and Attempt to Possess.  That was not his plan.

The court found five facts in aggravation, nothing in mitigation.  The opinion discusses his lack of insight into the misconduct and his attacks on the officers for being vindictive as evidence that Schalk needing disciplined.  So it did the deed.  Schalk got nine months without automatic reinstatement. I will explain the importance of “automatic reinstatement” in a later post.

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Conour

Recent word is that Bill and Jennifer Conour’s names still grace the atrium at the McKinney Law School.  According to the Indiana Lawyer story of Sept. 12, 2012 the law enforcement authorities were actively investigating the matter in December 2011.  That story’s lede is “William Conour, until recently, was one of Indiana’s most respected and powerful personal injury attorneys,…” (see reference above).

I think it is time for Indiana University to figure out how to get those names off the atrium wall.  Whatever it takes.  IU’s new general counsel will surely do a better job to include contract terms that fit with Herman B Wells’ admonition about naming things until five years after the person’s death, or at least have a forfeiture clause if necessary.  Coaches contracts should have morals/NCAA clauses as well.  Good luck Jackie.

Sex causes trouble for lawyers and (sr.) judge; Theft and Tax Evasion are problems too.

New York lawyers

In NYC a law firm partner got sued for sexually harassing a junior lawyer in the firm. That happens and is hardly news anymore. What got the NY Times to react was – he not only denied it, but he filed a counterclaim. She says he had his way, against her will, several times and places. Her claim, she quits her job due to his actions, and sues him and the firm.

He comes firing back and gets headlines. He says he turned her down and called a cab to take her home after she suggested that “if he wanted, she would not say no!” He says she was spurned, and “Hell hath no fury…” This will be interesting to watch. Embedded in the Times article is the so-called “lurid complaint” and the counterclaim.

Indiana Sr. Judge and practicing lawyer

Lisa Traylor-Wolff is from near my office, and was the judge of the then two-county  (Fulton-Pulaski) County Court before we asked the legislature to separate the courts in the 1990s.  Several years ago the Pulaski County voters chose another to serve as judge, and she has been practicing since that election – probably 8-10 years ago.  She has served as Senior Judge under the Administrative Rules, #5(B), since her return to private practice.

She was appointed the public defender of S.W. a prisoner at the Miami Correctional Center, and according to the Supreme Court’s Published Order “engaged in an improper romantic relationship” with the client S.W.  That was a violation of Rule 1.7 (a)(2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and as she is qualified as a Sr. Judge, the actions also violated Rules 1.2 and 3.1(C) of the Indiana Code of Judicial Conduct.

For this Traylor-Wolff gets a lifetime suspension from serving in any judicial capacity, and a one year suspension from the practice of law, with all but 45 days withheld, and two years of probation. Among the probation terms are working with JLAP; stay away from S.W. (is he the victim?); no violations of RPC; and pay costs.

Marion County Prosecutor goes after admitted and alleged bad lawyers

Terry Curry is going after bad guys, and as prosecutor that is his (and his office’s) job.  Two recent targets are Indy lawyers David Rees and Steven Geller. 

Rees is alleged to have stolen estate funds, after eight years of administration of the estate of his client there was about $400,000 unaccounted for. He also was charged with Obstruction of Justice for filing a false “final accounting” that claimed the missing money was still in the account.

According to the Prosecutor’s press release, Rees has admitted the theft of $270,549 of estate funds, agreed to plead guilty and could face up to eight years for the Class C and D felonies.

Geller was charged with the failure to file multiple Indiana tax returns, earning an Evasion of Tax charge as a Class D Felony. Expect the federal charges to follow.

What causes Trouble for Lawyers? Fee Increases w/o Following the Rules: Ranting about the Judge: Dope in Court

Changing the Flat Fee – Oops

Fees are a difficult issue for lawyers, how much to charge and how to get paid are on the lawyer’s mind in nearly every engagement.  More flat fees are being used, as objections to the scope and nature of an hourly fee basis are growing. Indiana’s rule on increasing a firm fee that is to be charged to a client is the minority rule. But it is the rule.

It appears the purpose of Indiana’s rule is to protect the client during a change in the relationship, and in theory it does just that. Changing a relationship and fee during the midst of a matter could lead to overreaching or abuse. The rule attempts to alert the client to that possibility.

The lawyer needs to know how to protect herself as well as the client, and while the fees are governed by Rule 1.5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the change in relationship rule is in Rule 1.8 of the RPC.

The lawyer is to tell the client, in writing: “You are advised of the desireability of seeking, and be given a reasonable opportunity to seek, the advice of independent legal counsel on the change in our legal fee transaction; and you (the client) are to give informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction, and to the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.”

How often a client will seek an independent opinion in a timely way is doubtful. But the file must have these two written documents.

Indiana and at least two other states consider a modification of the fee agreement to be a new business arrangement with the client, and so the Rule 1.8 business warnings are required. Prominent Indianapolis lawyer Bob Hammerle found out the hard way.

Hammerle took on defense of a criminal case for Ed Blinn Jr., and they agreed on a flat fee plus an hourly fee after five days of trial. So far, so good.  As the case went on, the outcome must have looked grim for getting paid after the case was over for the hourly part of his fee. That is for the part billed after the services were rendered, and Blinn might be jailed. The client was refusing to negotiate for a plea.  So, Hammerle orally offered to change the hourly billing portion to a flat fee, no matter how long the trial took.  He forgot to check the rule on the change in the fee. Blinn verbally agreed, paid the fee (which is considered earned when paid, as a flat fee), then changed his mind, took a plea and wanted his extra fee back.

After Blinn sued and the courts decided that case Hammerle’s way (statute of limitations was missed by Blinn, but in addition the Court of Appeals went out of its way to say that no malpractice or unjust enrichment occurred), the Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission took over. The parties agreed to a Public Reprimand, for violation of Rule 1.5(a) charging an unreasonable fee, and Rule 1.8(a) entering a business transaction with a client without giving written notice of the desirability of seeking the advice of independent counsel on the change, and securing a written consent to the essential terms of the transaction.

Lawyers — changes to your fee agreements that could be considered to favor you, the lawyer, instead of your client, will be subject to the double whammy of 1.5/1.8.  The Supreme Court said that the fee charged to Blinn was not unreasonable, if properly vetted by the Rule 1.8(a) standards. Without the 1.8 warnings, it was unreasonable (per se?).

Indiana, New York and New Hampshire have this 1.8 rule interpretation, no other reports are in the ABA Annotated Model Rules (6th Ed.).  Is this the future of Rule 1.8 around the nation, or a misstatement of what the law ought to be?  I think the later, but I give written 1.8 warnings, and get written consents  anyway. You should too.

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Calling the judge a pedophile cannot be a good thing

Outbursts at judges make you eligible for a contempt citation, and some deserve the action.  Carlos Romious apparently missed the “civility day” lessons in law school. After one session where Romious asked sitting judge Mountjoy “if the proceeding is a joke” and stating that the judge was “corrupting and stinking up the case” and “corrupting the system” Romious was told to appear to answer to Contempt of Court charges. Normally the smarter lawyer cools off, apologizes to the court and to the judge, and hopes for a fine.  Not Romious.

He appeared ready to fight.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal law blog, he worked himself up to the point where he finally asked Judge Mountjoy: “Are you a pedophile?” 

A four month sentence is a pretty long time to spend in jail for a lawyer trying to keep an office open. I think it would crimp the style, and cause some clients grave concern. But here it sounds about right.  When in the heat of battle, a suggestion: Do not accuse the judge of anything, much less being a pedophile.

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Dope Should Remain in the Pocket

More than one type of dope showed up in Court in New Orleans.  The assistant city attorney for New Orleans had a bit  of dope in his pocket when he appeared in court. That was a dopey thing to do, and he was the dope when a joint of marijuana fell on the floor in front of the two police officers he was chatting with, and who arrested him there.  Not a serious crime, but Jason Cantrell lost his job and was publicly criticized by his wife, a candidate for city council. Lawyers, don’t be a dope.