Monday, January 1, 2007

Lawyers have their own Mafia and protect one another

Disciplining Lawyers in Connecticut

The Following Investigative Reports are by

Thomas D. Williams, Courant Staff Writer

March 7, 2004

Disciplining Bad Lawyers A Long, Slow Process
While State Panel Deliberates, Questionable Attorneys Continue To Practice



As a fraud investigator for the state Department of Social Services, Kathleen T. Griffin has heard many tales of trust betrayed. Now she has one of her own.
More than 3½ years ago,
Griffin hired 51-year-old attorney Robert A. Izzo of Southington to handle a property dispute. Before he was done, he cost her a $2,600 property damage award and crippled her credit rating by failing to pay a $900 tax bill. Griffin is not the only client Izzo harmed. He accumulated 44 complaints from clients in 11 years before his Connecticut law license was revoked in May. Nor is Izzo the only lawyer who has been allowed to continue to practice - and seek new clients - while ethics complaints pile up. During the past three years, the Statewide Grievance Committee deliberated a year or more before taking seven Connecticut lawyers with the most serious misconduct records to court, a Courant review has found. The seven accounted for 71 complaints. Critics say the public is being put at risk by the cumbersome grievance committee process and a reluctance by the committee to seek interim suspensions of lawyers' licenses during its investigations. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal believes the system is flawed. Committee lawyers, he said, fail to seek "immediate intervention to secure clients' money, or to expedite action where there is a clear and present danger of continuing misconduct." Bridgeport attorney Raymond Rubens, chairman of the Statewide Grievance Committee, acknowledged that the committee often takes too long to make a decision. The system has been reformed three times in the last 15 years, but concerns remain. The latest changes, approved by judicial officials 18 months ago, went into effect in January. It will be some time before their effectiveness can be evaluated. Lawyers' dealings with clients are guided by the Rules of Professional Conduct. The most common charges lawyers confront during grievance committee inquiries are neglecting a client's legal problems; failing to communicate with a client; dishonesty, fraud or deceit; breaking client confidences; misusing clients' trust accounts; charging excessive or unreasonable fees; and disregarding court rules and procedures.

The Bad Ones

Between 1995 and 2002, 74 lawyers accounted for 342 complaints. Two had 14 each, while others received from two to 12 complaints each. Izzo had the most, with 29. If
Griffin and other clients had checked Izzo's record, they would have seen a 1998 bankruptcy, three reprimands and more than a dozen relatively recent complaints of serious misconduct. Had Griffin known grievance cases are public record, she would not have hired Izzo after a neighbor's water problem flooded her Waterbury condominium in the summer of 2000. But Griffin didn't check, and she hired Izzo to help her recoup damages and sell the property. Griffin paid Izzo an initial fee of several hundred dollars and asked him to settle taxes on the property from the proceeds of the sale. Griffin initially won a $2,600 claim for the water damage. Griffin said Izzo failed to act, though, when the court reopened the case and dismissed it. When Griffin sold the condo, Izzo did not pay the taxes, Griffin said. She discovered this only after her credit card wasn't honored as a result of a bad credit report triggered by the unpaid taxes. Griffin's $900 claim for the tax bill has been pending for two years with the state Client Security Fund. That fund is raised through an annual $75 fee paid by the state's practicing lawyers and judges to compensate victims of lawyer misconduct. Izzo's law license was suspended in January 2002. But Izzo was not disbarred until about four months after Superior Court Judge Howard Owens sentenced him to 45 days in jail in January 2003 for stealing $13,500 from another client. To this day, Griffin wonders why lawyers like Izzo aren't stopped sooner. "It does make you feel that [lawyers] are protecting one another," Griffin said. "It gives the appearance of that, even if they are not. Certainly, the pursuit of bad lawyers has a low priority." During the year that it took the grievance committee to force Izzo into court, where his license was suspended, nearly a dozen more complaints rolled in. Izzo said the experience was "very painful" for him. "I really don't want to be interviewed about these things."

Even Single Complaint Can Drag On

While cases involving repeat offenders often take a long time to resolve, even a single complaint can drag on. Consider Pat Feeley, 63, a writer who sued her lawyer,
Westport attorney Hale Sargent, and filed an ethics complaint against him in 1998. Feeley, who lives in Norwalk, said Sargent in 1992 loaned $59,000 of her inheritance, which he had been holding in escrow, to another, cash-strapped client. The loan was secured by a mortgage on property in Westport and monthly interest payments were made on the loan, with the principal due in 1994, according to the grievance committee file. Feeley said she later learned that Sargent had been paid $12,000 in legal fees from the other client out of the $59,000 loan. Tom Sargent, speaking for his brother and law partner, said Feeley approved Hale Sargent's loaning her money to another client. Feeley denies that. It took nearly six months and another lawyer's $5,600 in fees to collect on the loan, Feeley said. In late 2002, Hale Sargent and his firm agreed to a $125,000 malpractice insurance settlement, Feeley said, but he and his partner admitted no wrongdoing. "It probably wasn't a good idea," Tom Sargent said of the loan. Asked about the settlement, Tom Sargent said: "I opposed giving her one dime. It was an independent decision of the [law firm's] insurance company." Some 18 months after Feeley filed her complaint, Hale Sargent was reprimanded for his handling of the loan. Tom Sargent did agree with Feeley that grievance complaints take far too long to resolve. He said some members on the volunteer three-member panels deciding the cases drop out, disrupting evidence gathering. Feeley and other critics say administrative judges trained in ethics issues should be hearing misconduct complaints against lawyers after inquiries by professional committee investigators. Those most harmed by committee delays are clients considering filing malpractice claims against their attorneys. Lawyers are reluctant to file such claims against other lawyers without knowing what the grievance committee discovered.

How The System Operates

In
Connecticut, complaints against lawyers are first filed with the 21-member statewide committee. If the complaint is not dismissed by two lawyers and a non-lawyer of that committee, it is sent to a local district committee. There are one or more committees in each of the state's 13 judicial districts. The all-volunteer district committee, also made up of two lawyers and a non-lawyer, can dismiss a complaint or refer it to the 21-member statewide committee for review by a statewide subcommittee, also made up of two lawyers and a non-lawyer. The district committee has 110 days to decide a case and can get a 30-day extension. The statewide subcommittee can exonerate or reprimand a lawyer. It also can call for the lawyer to make restitution or get more legal education. And, with the lawyer's consent, the panel can have the lawyer submit to financial audits or get drug and alcohol treatment. The subcommittee has 90 days to decide a case and can get a 30-day extension. The panel can also recommend to the Superior Court that the attorney be suspended or disbarred. Cases against lawyers involving multiple complaints take even longer -sometimes more than a year - to review because they are not consolidated into a single investigation. Even after the grievance committee is finished, the court can take another year to decide the most serious cases. A judge can then suspend, disbar, order a lesser punishment or exonerate the attorney.

And then, the lawyer can appeal to a higher court.

In most states, grievance committees devote prime resources to investigating and punishing the worst - usually repeat - offenders. Cases involving repeat offenders require expeditious treatment, experts say. As a measure of effectiveness, grievance committees in many states readily disclose the average time it takes to resolve complaints. In
Connecticut, when asked for the data, Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, a spokeswoman for the judicial department, said the information is in a database, but the committee's staff doesn't have the time to retrieve it. But in North Dakota, for instance, the lawyer disciplinary agency in 2002 reported that it took an average of 4.5 months to discipline lawyers. Yet in Connecticut the rules give the grievance committee more than 10 months to decide. Rubens, head of the Statewide Grievance Committee, said staff shortages have made it difficult to handle the workload. In August, cuts in clerical staff hurt the committee's ability to answer the phone to help consumers with new and existing complaints. That problem has since been partially rectified, Stearley-Hebert said. The judicial department, not the committee, decides how the committee's office personnel and the part-time investigator are used, Rubens said. And the number of complaints has been increasing. The 1,358 grievances filed in the fiscal year that ended June 30 reflect a 14 percent jump over the 1,188 filed in the 2001-2002 fiscal year. That complaint total is 6.7 percent higher than the 2000-2001 fiscal year. Between July 2000 and November 2003, 3,655 complaints were filed against lawyers. Yet just 10 lawyers were disbarred and 31 were suspended. The grievance committee issued 138 reprimands and ordered 14 others to take remedial action. Some argue that the low number of suspensions and disbarments is evidence that many complaints are unwarranted. Others say it's a sign of the difficulty the legal profession has disciplining itself.

New Rules

New procedural rules took effect Jan. 1. They were intended to address the long delays. The committee now has two lawyers to assist complainants. In the past, many of those aggrieved represented themselves, sometimes delaying proceedings with their lack of knowledge. Gone now, however, is the client's right of appeal when a local committee decision favors the lawyer. On the other hand, lawyers with three reprimands on their record now will have their cases expedited if a fourth complaint is filed against them. Some critics say
Connecticut's system needs more radical change. Ken Jorgensen, director of the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, said the complaint system used in Connecticut for repeat offenders is "terribly inefficient." It's the same complaint system Minnesota abandoned two decades ago. That was about the same time Connecticut adopted that multilayered system. In Minnesota, unlike Connecticut, multiple complaints against the same lawyer are handled by the same committee counsel and by a single panel of fact-finders simultaneously. This way, a lawyer's alleged misconduct may be considered in the context of overall performance as quickly as possible, Jorgensen said. Some also believe changes are necessary in how lawyer oversight is funded. In Connecticut, the committee's budget, and thus staffing, is subject to spending cuts by the governor and the legislature. In many states, however, lawyers pay an annual fee to fund all committee operations. A nationwide survey of grievance committees in 2000 showed Connecticut spent $1.2 million on lawyer discipline, less than Georgia, Maryland and Minnesota, states with similar lawyer populations. For the past 30 years, some legislators, lawyers, clients and judges have unsuccessfully tried to get the committee more staff and money. Opponents of strengthening the committee - mostly other lawyers, judges and legislators, some of whom are lawyers - say that the system works well now and that strengthening the system would only make it harder on lawyers facing frivolous complaints. Stearley-Hebert said the committee has added some staff and created a counseling program to help lawyers deal with financial and medical problems. Two new disciplinary counsels, hired to assist those filing a complaint, began preliminary work in December. The new lawyers should help ease the workload and speed up the process, she said. But Rubens is concerned. He said the new attorneys assisting the aggrieved may actually make the hearings more contentious, and thereby more time-consuming. Blumenthal, after being informed of The Courant's findings about committee shortcomings, has recommended reforms to Judge Joseph H. Pellegrino, the chief court administrator.

They include:

Giving the committee the authority to issue emergency orders, subject to judicial review, when a client's money or property is at risk or lawyers are committing repeated misconduct.

Sending serious multiple complaints directly to statewide committee hearings, bypassing the local committee.

Maintaining, rather than erasing, records of attorney grievance proceedings.

Suzanne Mishkin, an associate counsel for HALT, a nonprofit legal reform group evaluating lawyer grievance committees nationwide, said
Connecticut's system needs more non-lawyer participation. The committee also needs a better website informing the public of all facets of the grievance process including the average time it takes to process grievances, she said.

Last year, HALT gave
Connecticut one "incomplete" rating because the state provided no information on how long it takes to decide a complaint.

The phone number of the grievance committee is 860-568-5157. The available grievance committee decisions on lawyers are at this web address: www.jud.state.ct.us/faq/grievance/default.htm. The website where many questions about lawyers are answered, including where a person can locate the Statewide Grievance Committee, is: www.jud.state.ct.us/faq/attorney.html.

Courant Staff Writer Josh Kovner assisted in the reporting of this story.

Panel Finally Clears Lawyer; Sex Charge Filed 5 Years Ago
By Thomas D. Williams

Much of what ails lawyer oversight in Connecticut is laid bare in the dragged out ethics investigation of former state prosecutor Anthony Troy Martin. Although Martin was charged nearly five years ago with sexual assault, it was not until last month that the Statewide Grievance Committee finally concluded its inquiry and cleared him. The case could have been concluded 3½ years earlier, if the judge or prosecutor handling Martin's criminal case had addressed the ethics issue, as Rules of Professional Conduct require. Instead, the grievance committee brought a complaint itself in 2000, because the court never dealt with it. In 1999, Martin, then 33, was arrested after a woman told
Hartford police that Martin had kidnapped and sexually assaulted her. Although the criminal charges against Martin were dismissed, one count of third-degree assault was erased only after he completed six months of probation. When criminal charges are brought against a lawyer, separate ethics proceedings affecting his law license are usually postponed until the charges are disposed of. Then, the prosecutor and the judge are mandated to either resolve the ethics issues themselves or send them on to the grievance committee.

The grievance committee decides whether a lawyer violated the rules of conduct.

Just before the disposition of Martin's criminal case, Martin's lawyer, Hubert J. Santos, convinced supervisory criminal court Judge Elliot N. Solomon to allow the case to be heard instead by Judge Howard Scheinblum, who presided in the same court where Martin prosecuted defendants. Scheinblum quickly granted Martin's application for accelerated rehabilitation and six months' probation and ordered him to do 100 hours of community service. Attorney Wesley Spears, representing the woman Martin was accused of assaulting, told Scheinblum the woman did not object to Martin's probation. Spears also told the judge she had settled a related lawsuit against Martin. It was later publicly disclosed that she received a $25,000 settlement. Martin was suspended with pay following his arrest. He resigned from the prosecutor's job just before Scheinblum granted his probation. But neither Scheinblum nor the prosecutor, Kevin Russo, did anything to resolve the ethics issues related to Martin's license to practice law. State court judges and prosecutors usually make sure they deal with the status of an accused lawyer's license to practice law, as ethics codes require. They can decide on the record that there is no worthy ethics issue, refer the allegations to the grievance committee or call for a court hearing to decide if punishment is necessary. Scheinblum declined comment on the case. Russo gave no reason for not acting, but said his inaction was of little consequence because the grievance committee decided to review Martin's conduct on its own. The Hartford-New Britain District Grievance Committee, reacting to a news story about the disposition of Martin's criminal case, took up the ethics issue on its own initiative six weeks after Martin's probation began. The grievance proceeded so slowly that by the time the district committee was ready for a hearing, Martin had finished probation. As a result, the criminal case against Martin, by law, had been erased. Furthermore, Martin refused to testify before the committee, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Spears refused to identify his client, the accuser, as a witness, according to the panel's ruling. With no evidence, no witnesses and no criminal case, the district committee decided to drop it. Dissatisfied with the outcome at the district level, the statewide committee chose to pick up the matter. After some initial difficulty locating the woman, the committee introduced the woman's testimony against Martin from a prior administrative proceeding. She testified that he sexually assaulted her. Martin testified the sex was consensual. The state committee held its final hearing on Martin's case in May. Its options included clearing Martin, reprimanding him or referring the case to Superior Court for possible suspension or disbarment.

After he was cleared last month, Martin withdrew his state Supreme Court challenge to the committee's inquiry. His grievance committee file was erased, as new ethics rules require. Under old rules, all complaints reviewed by the statewide committee were available to the public. Asked about the long delay in resolving Martin's grievance, Atherton B. Ryan, counsel to the Hartford-New
Britain grievance committee, said: "Frankly, I have always felt that the serious cases take too long for the committee to resolve."

Questionable Counsel: Woman Says Man With No Law Degree Worked On Her Custody Case
By Thomas D. Williams

Margaret Briggs Brooks of
Greenwich said her child-custody fight was bad enough, but then she learned that a legal assistant working on her case was an ex-convict.
Brooks, 47, was fighting over custody of her two young sons and financial support during a bitter divorce case. She said she relied on a lawyer she initially trusted, only to have her legal and personal problems significantly worsen. When she complained to the Statewide Grievance Committee, the body of volunteers that polices attorneys in
Connecticut, she found it overworked, understaffed, and way behind - often many months - in resolving complaints. Brooks' 17-month-old complaint against New Haven attorney Howard Lawrence is awaiting action by the statewide committee. A local grievance committee in April found probable cause that Lawrence improperly referred her case to a man who at the time was wanted by the police. The New Haven Judicial District Grievance Committee found evidence to suggest that Lawrence violated ethics rules requiring attorneys to charge "reasonable" fees and to bear responsibility for non-lawyer assistants they employ. In November, after a seven-month wait, the statewide grievance panel heard Brooks' complaint. After a second hearing in January, still a third hearing was scheduled, in April, because the ex-convict still hasn't testified. "It's extremely traumatic and it's extremely painful to have to wait," she said, "especially when there's children involved. It's like you're stuck in a war and it never ends. "The state has to do something for the citizens. They bend over backward for the attorneys," she said. "I hope they're equally as fair with me. ... To put this burden on a lay person to function as a prosecutor, complainant and witness, it's totally unfair." Brooks, a former actress and model and now a bank loan officer, alleged that Lawrence assigned Dan Beeman as a lawyer to advise her, and he spent about 100 hours on the case. Lawrence told the state committee he hired Beeman as a legal research assistant at the urging of Dan Millstein, a disbarred lawyer who thought that Beeman was an attorney. Beeman told him he had graduated from Fordham Law School, Lawrence said. Lawrence said that Beeman, whom he paid $10 an hour as a legal aide, did not spend one minute working for Brooks. He introduced Beeman and the rest of his staff to Brooks, Lawrence said, but Beeman did no research on her case. Later, Lawrence said, he learned that Beeman had served prison time for fraud in New York, Massachusetts and Florida. But, the lawyer added, he never checked out Beeman's schooling or personal background before hiring him. Brooks said Lawrence charged her an initial $25,000 retainer to have Beeman handle all the work outside of court. She complained that Beeman convinced her to pay him more than $10,000 in cash and money orders for his work. Her legal fees eventually reached $40,000, Brooks said, before she complained.

To counter Lawrence's denials that Beeman worked for her, Brooks produced a letter from a Greenwich doctor saying he received a call from a man identifying himself as Beeman, Brooks' attorney and friend, seeking information about her mental health.
Lawrence said that when he discovered Beeman was using a calling card suggesting he was an attorney, he hired an investigator to check him out. The investigator discovered that Beeman was a fugitive from Florida. Lawrence said he called police, and Beeman was arrested. He spent some months in jail before being freed and returning to Connecticut where he now lives. Beeman said he did research work for Lawrence for $10 an hour, but refused comment on whether he worked on Brooks' case. Beeman, however, was outraged about his arrest on what he called outdated charges. He said he spent six months behind bars in Connecticut and two months in Florida before authorities finally determined his fugitive arrest was unwarranted. Lawrence said Brooks agreed to pay the $40,000 he had charged her and received $135,000 in increased alimony from her husband. But Brooks says that Beeman's inadequate research cost her sole custody of her two children and hurt her chance to receive more alimony. Lawrence testified before the committee that the judge in charge of the case specifically praised him for the diligence of his courtroom work. Outside of the hearing, Lawrence said Brooks made up her story because she is "paranoid." Looking directly at Lawrence during a recent hearing, Brooks exclaimed: "It's my money you took and it's my life and my children you destroyed!"

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The above found here on the web

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