Monday, February 9, 2015

Murder for Hire, Embezzlement and Attorneys Behaving Badly

Murder for Hire, Embezzlement and Attorneys Behaving Badly

Friday, February 06, 2015
A murder for hire plot, embezzlement, and stealing money from mom are just a handful of crimes and acts of misconduct committed by Oregon attorneys in the last three years.
The Oregon State Bar’s disciplinary arm considered 234 cases of official misconduct in 2014.   Among them were cases that included a defense lawyer who hired a man to kill his wife, the treasurer of the Oregon’s Yale Alumni Fund who wrote himself checks for over $31,000, and a lawyer who resigned after moving money out of his mother’s bank accounts into his own. 
See Below: The Five Worst Cases of Attorney Misconduct 2012-2014
While some cases are more egregious than others, the most common reason Oregon attorneys got disbarred between 2012 and 2014 was for taking money from their clients’ escrow, trust or personal accounts without their knowledge.
“Lawyers are well aware that that is a kind of mortal sin,” said veteran Portland litigator Terry Scannell. “Just bounce a check [from a clients account] and the bank is required to notify the bar.”
Scannell and other legal experts say that Oregon’s legal oversight system sets a high standard for legal ethics. That said, the bar association recently came under fire from the national association for being slow, inefficient and not independent enough. The American Bar Association recommended 19 areas where the local system could be improved.
Lawyers In Trouble
The most common misconduct cases seen by the Oregon bar are about small issues like attorneys who fail to adequately communicate with or represent their clients. Simply failing to file paperwork on time can constitute misconduct. 
Still, health-related complaints are on the rise, nationwide.
According to a national 2015 American Bar Association report, “disciplinary agencies are seeing a rise in complaints involving lawyers who are struggling with substance abuse issues and mental health problems, as well as age-related mental incapacity.”
Local attorneys are not immune to such issues, said Oregon State Bar spokeswoman Kateri Walsh. 
“It’s true that we see cases arise when a lawyer is struggling with mental health, drug or gambling or some other issue,” Walsh said. “I can’t say it’s increasing. But lawyers, like everyone else, suffer from these issues.”
Policing the Lawyers
The Oregon State Bar, with a staff of almost 90, was empowered by the Oregon Supreme Court to police the conduct of the state’s 14,000 lawyers.
Over the last three years, its State Professional Responsibilities Board (SPRB) has examined roughly 200 cases a year.  Of them, they’ve handed down 67 admonitions, 10 disbarments and 50 suspensions. What’s more, Oregon Bar investigations and disciplinary proceedings have prompted 63 resignations, the bar association confirmed.
Walsh said attorneys, when faced with a bar association prosecution, often simply resign.
“I think the reasons fluctuate from case to case,” Walsh said. “They [defendants] might not think they would prevail and in other cases they are near retirement and don’t want to face the expense of a trial.”
A three-person volunteer committee, made of two lawyers and a non-attorney, judge each case and recommend punitive action.  Actions can range from a public rebuke to a thirty-day suspension, or more.
Complaints as a Tactical Weapon
Since 2012, over 4,000 complaints were filed against attorneys in Oregon. The motivations for the complaints are usually client dissatisfaction, but that’s not always the case, according to some legal experts.
“Some people use bar complaints as a tactical weapon,” Scannell said. “Adverse attorneys and parties will sometimes bring bar complaints.”
Others say complaints can be filed as a result of professional grudges, as a way to extract concessions from a legal opponent, or simply as a result of emotions that can arise from legal conflicts.
“There are many, many reasons why bar complaints get filed,” Scannell said. “Sometimes they don’t have anything to do with protecting the public.”
Reforming The System?
Legal experts GoLocalPDX spoke with said they do not normally mind a complaint filed against them.  None had any specific problems with the system of legal discipline in the state. But many did say the process was slow.
In 2014, The Oregon Supreme Court invited the American Bar Association to Oregon to review the entire system of attorney discipline.  A January report released by the ABA’s Standing Committee on Professional Discipline forwarded 19 recommendations to improve the system by speeding up the process and reducing duplications.
“The Oregon lawyer disciplinary systems are, in a number of ways, unnecessarily redundant, resulting in inefficiency and accompanying delay, a blurring of prosecutorial and adjudicative functions, and lack of consistency in the outcome of cases, “ the report states.
More importantly, the report recommended that the office of Disciplinary Counsel, the attorney in charge of overseeing lawyer discipline, should be moved from the Oregon State Bar and to the state Supreme Court.  That move would reverse much of the Supreme Court’s original decision to delegate disciplinary functions to the bar association in the first place. 
“An independent lawyer disciplinary system, operated under the direct oversight of the Court, promotes the integrity of a judicially regulated legal profession,“ documents state.
Theresa M. Gronkiewicz, who was part of the ABA’s Oregon Lawyer Discipline System Consulting Team, would not comment when contacted by GoLocalPDX about the findings.
Walsh also would not comment but said the bar association was convening a task force to review the ABA recommendation and submit a more refined set of changes to the Oregon Bar’s board of governors.
It was unclear if reforms were imminent, but Scannell said that at the moment, the system was keeping a lot of attorneys honest.
“Oregon lawyers are held to a higher standard, even in business, than the general public,” Scannell said. “[The Bar] takes every complaint very seriously.”

Related Slideshow: The Five Worst Cases of Attorney Misconduct 2012-2014

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Paul Handy

Handy resigned from the Bar in 2013, after he siphoned money from a client in the few years leading up to his death, according to bar association documents.
Handy withdrew $50,000 from his client’s trust account over a period of a few years, affidavts state. After the client died, a representative of the estate asked about the funds. Handy lied, saying the money was still there.
In the middle of the bar’s investigation, which also included forgery claims, Handy resigned.

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