Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The Oklahoma Supreme Court reinstated an attorney who had resigned from the bar while facing allegations of personally use of missing entrusted guardianship funds:
Testimony before the Trial Panel showed that at the time of his resignation, Mr. Jones was a very well known and prominent attorney in Tulsa. His counsel pointed out that Mr. Jones's ancestry is a prominent piece of Tulsa history; he is a third-generation lawyer and his family members had been important leaders of the community for many years. For over thirty years Mr. Jones carried out that family tradition. He was a well-respected attorney with a good practice, doing a great deal of community work and serving on many boards. However, his personal life was crumbling around him because of financial problems; and, in his own words, his character flaws of greed, selfishness, arrogance, pride and self-centeredness led him to become a common thief. Mr. Jones had been in practice with his father since passing the bar; but by the time of the events in question, his father had retired and was in a nursing home. Petitioner had been having financial problems for some time. He had serious tax indebtedness, tax liens had been placed on his property and collection procedures were being brought against him. He had borrowed money to pay these debts, but he had fallen behind again and knew he was in a desperate situation. In 1992, a client came to him to discuss a proposition he had received from a bank in Nigeria promising $28 million for assistance in setting up a corporation in Nigeria.
Petitioner did not realize this was a scam. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to get money that would solve his financial problems. So, when the Nigerians explained that he first must send money to them as a show of good faith before they could send him millions of dollars, he wrongfully took funds from the guardianship account, planning to pay it back when the money from Nigeria was sent to him. His father was the ward's long-time guardian and Petitioner had been serving as custodian-in-fact, due to his father's incapacity. Petitioner testified he took his father to the bank and had him withdraw the ward's money which petitioner then used for his own benefit. The promised money from Nigeria never arrived.
Petitioner testified that he and his wife faced many adversities during the years following his resignation. They had very little income. He worked for a long period as a legal assistant for attorney Wilma Palmer, who is now a judge, and he and his wife also received some funds from a teaching ministry which they began, and continue to operate, to help others overcome similar character problems. They were homeless for a considerable time as their house had been sold by agreement to satisfy the judgments. When questioned as to whether any outstanding balance remained after the proceeds of the sale were paid on the judgments, Petitioner testified there had been no attempt to collect on a balance nor had a judgment been renewed. Ultimately, Petitioner and his wife lost everything. He explained that while many painful things happened during that time, it was nevertheless a period of tremendous personal growth and learning for him about life and about his own character and integrity. Petitioner expressed desire and intention to work with Lawyers Helping Lawyers to help others who are in trouble due to character problems. He believes that in doing so he will be able to add to the legal community as well as to the lives of the individuals.
Petitioner recounted that when he got in trouble it was the first time he recognized that he had major flaws in his character. He realized then he needed to change himself and his life and he began to work hard to make those changes. He offered no defense or excuse for his actions. Petitioner believes he has rehabilitated himself and that he is not the same person he was ten years ago. He explained that he waited so long after the five-year period to file for reinstatement because did not think he was ready before. He believes he is now a different and a better person, having developed his character and integrity so that he has the ability to deal with adversity and face problems without blaming others. In light of his personal growth, together with the control over his tax liability he has achieved through the payment plan, petitioner now considers himself worthy to make this request for reinstatement to the profession.
The court concluded that he had met his high burden of establishing present fitness to practice.
Update: thanks to Stephen for noting that there is a very thoughtful dissent, which I had failed to note in my original post. The dissent would accord no weight to the applicant's family background and, absent that factor, finds reinstatement "glaringly inconsisent" with precedent. (Mike Frisch)