Friday, September 16, 2011

Filthy Files May Be Destroyed

An order from the South Carolina Supreme Court deals with an issue I had not given much thought:

On several occasions, an attorney appointed to protect the interests of another lawyer's clients...has notified the Court that the lawyer's client files are not maintained in a sanitary and safe condition. In some cases, the attorney to protect has advised the Court that the lawyer's client files are moldy and/or infested with rodents and insects. As a consequence, the attorney to protect clients' interests is hesitant to inventory the lawyer's client files, to remove original documents from the client files, and to relinquish control of the files to the lawyer's clients upon client request.

In such circumstances, on a proper showing such as through photographs, the court may order the destruction of the files. (Mike Frisch)

September 16, 2011 in Professional Responsibility | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Goodbye, My Wardrobe"

A South Carolina attorney who sued a paper for defamation after an article called her a "two bit" and "corruptible" lawyer won actual and punitive damages at trial. The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the actual but reversed the punitive damage award.

The facts:

...the Columbia City Paper published an article entitled "Adieu M'Armoire: Whit-Ash Co. linked to bizarre divorce case, other prominent figures implicated."  The subject of the article was the divorce of Stella and Whit Black and a lawsuit Stella Black filed against Whit's divorce attorney, Rebecca West. In particular, the article addressed allegations Black made in an affidavit and motion filed in the divorce case, and in the complaint filed in the civil lawsuit, to support Black's claim that West should not be permitted to represent Whit.  In the civil lawsuit against West, Black alleged causes of action for civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and malpractice.  Paul Blake, a reporter for City Paper, reviewed the public record of Black's civil suit against West, which included Black's affidavit and motion in the divorce case.  Todd Morehead, another City Paper reporter, wrote the article based on Blake's review of the public record and interviews Blake conducted.  Neither Blake nor Morehead attempted to speak with West before publishing the article.

West sued City Paper, Blake, and Morehead for defamation.  West, who was mentioned by name in the article, alleged the following two statements in the article defamed her: (1) "[I]t had all the ingredients of a cheap detective novel: . . . two-bit lawyers who'll even turn on their own clients if the retainer is juicy enough"; and (2) "[W]hen they think back to the tense days of the Black divorce many won't care about the corruptible attorneys or ETV property."  At trial, Morehead admitted the statements refer to West.  He also admitted he chose "adjectives" to describe West that do not appear in the public documents.  However, both he and Blake testified the article was based exclusively on allegations Black made in the public documents.  Morehead testified the article was written in "narrative literary style" and did not reflect his or City Paper's opinion of West.

No punitives because:

...the gist of the publicly filed allegations Black made against West is that West is not a good lawyer, and that in this particular instance West intentionally and deceitfully abused her position of confidence with Black for the purpose of harming Black and benefiting Black's husband so that West would realize financial gain.  When we compare these publicly made allegations with the statements in the article that West is a "two-bit lawyer" and a "corruptible attorney," we find West has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that Appellants believed their characterization of the allegations Black made against West were not accurate.  Therefore, West has failed to prove actual malice.  We find the trial court erred as a matter of law in denying Appellants' directed verdict motion.  Accordingly, we reverse the jury's award of punitive damages.

The title of the article? According to a footnote:

In French, "adieu" means "farewell" or "goodbye," and "armoire" means "wardrobe" or "furniture."  "Adieu, Mi Armoire" means, quite literally, "goodbye, my wardrobe."  The Concise Oxford French-English Dictionary 14, 57 (1968).  Todd Morehead testified he intended the title to be a play on the opera "Adieu, M'Amour," because Stella Black is an aspiring opera star, and Whit Black owns a furniture store.

(Mike Frisch)

September 16, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

The Terminated

A University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor was removed as department head but continued as a professor. He sued, alleging that the action had been taken when he had refused to delete his unfavorable evaluation of a colleague who was seeking tenure.

The complaint alleged:

• Dr. [H.]’s duties as department head included the review of the academic
credentials and professional performance of professors within the Department.

• [T.W.], hired as an assistant professor in the Department in 2001, was
scheduled to be considered for tenure in the spring/summer of 2008. During 2007, as part
of his administrative duties as department head, Dr. [H.] concluded that Ms.[W.]’s
professional conduct was not acceptable. His conclusions were based in part on her repeated
and unannounced absences from the classroom, her refusal to accept his advice when she
engaged in an extra-marital affair with an undergraduate student in the department, her
falsification of information in several year-end reports and in her resume, and her fraudulent
claims for several alleged publications that did not exist.

• When the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences...became aware
of Dr. [H.]’s evaluation of Ms. [W.], he instructed the Acting Dean to order Dr. [H.]
to remove all negative information from the evaluation.

• Dr. [H.] informed Dean Burhenn that he did not intend to remain silent about
these matters while the University conducted a final tenure review for Ms. [W.]. Dr.
[H.] sent Dean Burhenn an e-mail stating “I cannot any longer obey orders to cover up
professional malfeasance on the part of any member of this department, and I cannot agree
to having such information suppressed.” In a meeting following the email, Dean Burhenn
asked Dr. [H.] to resign as department head.

• When Dr. [H.] refused to resign or remain silent about Ms. [W.]’s “academic
fraud,” he was “informed that he would be terminated as Department Head at the end of the
academic year. This termination was based on [his] refusal to alter official documents or
remain silent as to the academic fraud and professional malfeasance which was perpetrated
on the University and the citizens of the State of Tennessee.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the action, concluding that the loss of the department head position did not create a cause of action under the Tennessee Public Protection Act:

It is not disputed that Dr. [H.] was removed as department head, but continued to
be employed as a professor. Whether his complaint is sufficient depends on whether the
TPPA applies to an employee whose employment relationship is completely severed or only
modified in some manner. By its language, the TPPA applies to an employee who is
“discharged or terminated.” Because these terms are unambiguous, we look to “the natural
and ordinary meaning of the statutory language within the context of the entire statute
without any forced or subtle construction that would extend or limit the statute’s meaning”
to determine the legislature’s intent.

A dissent would find the allegations sufficient to state a claim, as the plaintiff had been "terminated" as department head.  (Mike Frisch)

September 16, 2011 in Law & Society | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

A Federal Judge For A Client

The Louisiana Disciplinary Board has recommended a six-month suspension with all but 30 days deferred of an attorney who had assisted former federal judge G. Thomas Porteous and his wife in filing a bankruptcy petition under the false last name "Ortous."

The board found that the attorney's intent was to avoid embarrassment to the client. He has no record of discipline in 24 years of practice, was remorseful and cooperative, and was not motivated by a desire for personal gain. (Mike Frisch)

September 16, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

In Search Of An Expert

The Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers has imposed a public reprimand of an attorney who tasked the client in a medical malpractice case with finding an expert to support the claim:

Between 2004 and the spring of 2009, the client obtained her medical records and gave
the records to the respondent. The respondent instructed the client to try to obtain an opinion
from her doctors as to whether there had been a medical error in her surgery. He did not consult
any of the client’s doctors himself, obtain an expert opinion, or take other action of his own to
evaluate and preserve the claims. The respondent failed to commence an action for the client or
inform her that he would not file suit within the limitations period, which expired in March or
April 2007. The respondent failed to inform the client that the limitations period had expired.

In the spring of 2009, the client asked the respondent whether he had started a lawsuit for
her. The respondent told the client that he had not filed suit, that he could do nothing for her,
and that was terminating his representation. The respondent did not disclose to the client that her
claims were time barred. For about the next year, the respondent failed to respond to the client’s
repeated requests for her records. He returned the records in the summer of 2010.

The respondent’s reliance on the client to obtain an expert opinion and his failure to take
action to evaluate and preserve the client’s claims violated Mass. R. Prof. C. 1.1, 1.2(a), and 1.3.
The respondent’s failure to inform the client that he would not file suit for her prior to the
expiration of the statute of limitation, disclose to the client that the limitations period had
expired, and reply to her requests for the return of her records violated Mass. R. Prof. C. 1.4(a)
and (b). His failure to return the records within a reasonable time after her request violated
Mass. R. Prof. C. 1.16(d) and (e)(1).

(Mike Frisch)

September 16, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Worthy Of Disbarment

An attorney who had been suspended for two and a half years in Massachusetts was disbarred as reciprocal discipline by the New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department.

The court concluded that the misconduct in two matters warranted greater discipline than imposed by the original disciplining court:

Respondent's misconduct in this matter is analogous to cases where this Court has found disbarment to be warranted. He fabricated stock certificates in order to support his false claim of ownership in his deceased's client's company, which claim he made to the courts, Bar Counsel, and to others. While there was no specific finding in the Massachusetts proceedings of "personal profit," the only conceivable purpose for such fabrication is personal gain. His misconduct constitutes an "egregious pattern[] of violations of legal and ethical obligations" (Lowell, 14 AD3d at 49), without any evidence of any mitigating circumstances (id. at 47 [major depressive disorder]). Respondent's entire handling of the decedent's estate, from the drafting of the will to his obstruction of the Special Administrator's handling of the estate, was permeated with misconduct, and his filing of frivolous lawsuits and refusal to obey court orders evidenced a pattern of disdain for the courts. Similar disregard was demonstrated by his behavior in the church matter in depositing the Church's rent checks and using the proceeds in knowing violation of a court order. We further note that respondent has been delinquent in paying his New York biennial registration fees since 2007. Thus, we depart from the Committee's recommendation of a five-year suspension and impose a sanction of disbarment.

(MIke Frisch)

 

September 16, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Novel Issue

An recent opinion from the South Carolina Advisory Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct:

FACTS

A family court judge has written a novel that will be released by an out-of-state publishing company.  The judge would like to send out an announcement, which will be made by the publishing company, by email or postcard to members of the South Carolina Bar with whom the judge is acquainted.  The announcement would not contain any reference to the judge’s position.  The judge inquires into the propriety of the announcements.

CONCLUSION

The judge may send emails or post cards announcing the publication of the judge’s novel as long as the email does not reference the judge’s position and the email is not sent from the judge’s judicial email address or the postcards do not show a return address for the judge’s chambers.  

(Mike Frisch)

September 15, 2011 in Judicial Ethics and the Courts | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Promises Promises

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has affirmed and reversed in part the dismissal of an action brought by the wife of a Manchester attorney against Nixon Peabody and an attorney there named Regina Rockefeller.

The Manchester attorney had handled an estate matter. The Nixon Peabody attorney accused him of misappropriation and threatened to report him to criminal and bar authorities if he did not repay the estate.

The wife claimed that these threats forced her to execute a reverse mortgage on her family home. The defendants reported him anyway. Suit was brought and the home was foreclosed.

The wife sued on a variety of claims stemming from her alleged resulting severe emotional and physical distress.

The court here found that the claim of fraudulent misrepresentation was sufficiently pled:

The writ alleges that in reliance upon the defendants’ promises not to report her husband’s misconduct, the plaintiff agreed to execute a reverse mortgage on, and release her homestead interest in, the family home in Manchester and the settlement agreement dated April 2, 2007. In her prayer for relief, the plaintiff states that her payments were made to the defendants involuntarily and as a result of fraud. We read the facts set forth in the writ as alleging that the defendants either intended or had reason to expect that the promises made to Attorney Tessier would be communicated to the plaintiff and would influence her decision to enter into the settlement agreement with Dr. Jakobiec.

The trial court also erred in denying the plaintiff's motion to amend claims of breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing.

 Because the court reversed the trial court's dismissal of some of the claims against the individual attorney, claims against the firm survive on the basis of respondeat superior. The failure to supervise claim against the firm was properly dismissed.

The Manchester attorney consented to disbarment.  (Mike Frisch)

September 15, 2011 in Law & Business, Law Firms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Prosecutor Reprimanded For OWI

A prosecutor convicted of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol has been publicly reprimanded by the Indiana Supreme Court:

 On February 11, 2010, while serving as chief deputy prosecutor in Sullivan County, Respondent was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated ("OWI"), and he later pled guilty to OWI in a manner that endangers a person, a class A misdemeanor. He was sentenced to one year in jail (with all but six days suspended), fined, and placed on probation, which he has completed successfully. He was suspended from the prosecutor's office without pay for 30 days.

The attorney had self-reported and gotten involved in the bar's alcohol rehabilitation program. (Mike Frisch)

 

September 15, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Fee Not Simple

The Indiana Supreme Court has ordered a public reprimand of an attorney who had charged an unreasonable fee to a client in a criminal matter and entered into a prohibited business transaction by seeking to revise the initial agreement. The attorney had no prior discipline in 37 years of practice.

The facts:

 In May 2005, Respondent was retained by a client charged with federal offenses. Respondent and the client entered into an agreement under which Respondent would represent the client for a "retainer/flat fee" of $35,000, plus an hourly fee of $250 if the trial lasted more than five days. Prior to this, the client had told Respondent he had no interest in a plea agreement, and the parties prepared for a multi-week jury trial.

After nearly seven months of work on the case, Respondent initiated discussions to revise the fee agreement. Respondent had concluded that the client was certain to be convicted after a lengthy trial and anticipated difficulty collecting the balance of his fee from an incarcerated client. The parties amended their fee agreement and agreed that the client would pay Respondent an additional flat fee of $20,000 and, in exchange, Respondent would drop billing by the hour for all work done after five days of trial. Respondent believed the ultimate fee under this modification would be more beneficial to the client given everyone's anticipation of a lengthy trial, but Respondent now recognizes he should have considered the possibility that the fee modification would be more beneficial to Respondent if the case could be resolved before trial. Respondent did not advise the client to consult with another attorney about of the advisability of amending the fee agreement, and he did not obtain the client's written consent to modify the original agreement. Not long after the fee agreement was modified, the government offered a plea agreement, which the client accepted on Respondent's advice.

(Mike Frisch)

September 15, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Try Try Again

The District of Columbia Bar Counsel and an attorney (represented by counsel)  have submitted a proposed consent disposition in a case involving allegations of billing fraud. The proposed sanction is a 90 day suspension with all but 30 days stayed and probation of two years.

The admitted allegations:

The allegations that Respondent self-reported, and which were brought to the attention of Bar Counsel, are that Respondent, while acting as the principle attorney at his law firm responsible for editing and submitting bills to a certain client (“Client”), a university, submitted to the Client bills which falsely stated the billable rate for certain associates and paralegals who had worked on the client’s legal matters. Petition at ¶ 1. The specifics of these allegations, including the details of the various billings, are set forth in the Petition at ¶¶ 2-31, and the sum total of these false billings amounted to $20,062.00. The Petition alleges a violation of Rule 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and/or misrepresentation). Petition at ¶ 33(a).

A hearing committee has now recommended that the proposed sanction be imposed and the matter is before the Court of Appeals. I can only hope that the court adopts the recommendation rather than remand to the Board on Professional Responsibility for its views, which is invariably a recipe for disaster.

The sanction is consistent with comparable cases (see here ). I handled the linked case at hearing through the first round of oral arguments at the court, which later remanded the case. By then, I had escaped to Georgetown. The analysis shows an institutional leniency for billing misconduct that makes this disposition within the range of possible sanctions.

I've got my fingers crossed that this one will get through and advance the cause of consent discipline in the District of Columbia.

The case is In re Dennis P. Clarke and can be accessed at this link. (Mike Frisch)

September 15, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sex And Love Addict

The California State Bar Court has concluded that the crime of possession of child pornography does not involve moral turpitude in all instances. The crime is "reprehensible" but "does not, in every instance, involve moral turpitude."

The bar court disagreed with a hearing judge's recommendation for disbarment and recommends a two year suspension with reinstatement conditioned on a showing of fitness to practice.

The attorney was convicted of a felony under California law. After sentencing, he twice violated probation. One violation involved possession of adult pornography. The other involved sex-texts from his cell phone to two women he had dated.

The attorney "testified that he is a recovering 'sex and love addict.' "He now participated in weekly Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, takes medication and receives cognitive behavioral therapy. His therapist is optimistic about his recovery. 

The Board:

Viewing the facts and circumstances unique to [his] conviction, and considering his mitigation evidence, we recommend a lengthy suspension and reinstatement proceeding rather than disbarment. We wish to be clear – we view possession of child pornography as serious and reprehensible misconduct. However, as discussed, the State Bar did not prove that the facts and circumstances surrounding [his] criminal offense for possessing two child pornographic images involved moral turpitude. [He] was duly punished by the criminal court for his wrongdoing and we believe he should receive significant attorney discipline, particularly since he twice violated his criminal probation and demonstrated a lack of candor in these proceedings. We therefore recommend that to protect the public and the profession [he] be actually suspended from the practice of law for two years and reinstated only if he establishes his rehabilitation...

The attorney has been on interim suspension as a result of the conviction. (Mike Frisch)

September 14, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

No Disqualification Required

A judge need not be disqualified from presiding over a criminal matter simply because his spouse is employed by the prosecutor's office, according to a decision issued today by the Minnesota Supreme Court. the spouse has not involvement in the prosecution:

We conclude that an objective examination of all the circumstances of this case would not lead a reasonable examiner with full knowledge of the facts and circumstances to question Judge Moreno’s impartiality. The facts and circumstances show that the

judge’s spouse is an attorney with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, a large organization that handles a high volume and wide variety of cases. She has had no personal involvement with the case and has no financial interest in its outcome. As an employee of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, she does not receive any additional financial benefit based upon any district court ruling. Although Judge Moreno’s spouse was once an appellate attorney in the Criminal Division of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, it appears that she transferred out of that division and to other roles well before this case was filed.

The court rejects the suggestion that the judge's involvement creates an appearence of impropriety. (Mike Frisch)

September 14, 2011 in Judicial Ethics and the Courts | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Banned For Life

An attorney who had misappropriated $144,000 was suspended for at least 18 months by the Minnesota Supreme Court. According to the court's opinion, the attorney transferred funds from the trust to the operating account as a result of recession-caused business problems.

The attorney also faces a three-year probation on reinstatement and another rather unusual provision - a lifetime ban on being an authorized signatory on a trust account.

The court noted substantial mitigating factors that included repayment prior to the discovery of the misappropriation. The conduct was brought to light by an overdraft notice issued after the attorney had replaced the funds. (Mike Frisch)

September 14, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Public Housing Benefits Crime, Cocaine Possession, Result In Indefinite Suspension

The web page of the Ohio Supreme Court reports:

The Supreme Court of Ohio has indefinitely suspended the license of [a] Willoughby attorney...for professional misconduct arising from her convictions on felony counts of possession of cocaine and grant theft. The theft counts were based on Cantrell’s falsification of official documents in order to illegally obtain Section 8 public housing benefits.

In a 7-0 per curiam decision announced today, the Court adopted findings by the Board of Commissioners on Grievances & Discipline that [the attorney's] conduct violated the state attorney discipline rules that prohibit committing a criminal act that reflects adversely on a lawyer’s honesty or trustworthiness and prohibit engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on a lawyer’s fitness to practice law. The Court declined to consider additional medical, psychological and testimonial evidence submitted to it by [the attorney], citing past decisions that preclude the Court from considering evidence that a respondent attorney failed to introduce at the time of his or her hearing before the disciplinary board.

In imposing a consecutive indefinite suspension, the Court noted that [her] license has been under an interim suspension since her felony convictions were reported to the Court in 2009, and that she is already serving an indefinite suspension imposed in 2010 for improper use of her office trust account and other rule violations.

The court's opinion is linked here. The court declined in impose the recommended sanction of permanent disbarment. (Mike Frisch)

September 14, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

When Fred Disinherited Sheila

The New Jersey Supreme Court has reprimanded an attorney who drafted a will for a "friend and longtime client" (Fred), which made the attorney's wife the beneficiary if the testatator's mother precedeased him. The attorney also drafted a will for the client's mother that left her entire estate to Fred and expressly disinherited her daughter Sheila. 

Mother died unexpectedly and Fred passed away unexpectedly "just a few months later." As a result, the attorney's wife inherited $1.3 million.

The complainant in the bar case, as one might expect, was Sheila. The Disciplinary Review Board found her complaint "rife with unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing...In essense, [she] complained that respondent and his wife... wheedled their way, over a twenty-year friendship with her brother, into his last will and testament and that of her mother."

The DRB concluded that a reprimand was a sufficient sanction for the attorney's "imprudent action" because Fred was closer to the attorney's wife than to Sheila, the wife was only a contingent beneficiary and "had any other attorney prepared Fred's will in the exact manner as respondent did, [respondent's wife] would likely have received everything in any event."

Sheila sued and got 55% of the estate. The attorney's wife (who had met Fred through her work) ended up with about $600,000.

Two DRB member recommended censure. One would suspend the attorney for three months. The District Ethics committee had proposed a five-year suspension.

The attorney has practiced for 30 years without blemish. (Mike Frisch)

September 14, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Meticulous Records Show Disbarred Attorney Not Confused

The New Jersey Supreme Court has followed the recommendation of its Disiplinary Review Board and disbarred an attorney for misappropriation.

 The board and court did not accept his explanation as mitigation:

...there is evidence that respondent was motivated to take the funds because of the pressure placed on him by his wife to bring home more money and because of the financial difficulties that he was experiencing at the time.

While respondent contended that his conditions rendered him confused and unable to focus, causing him to form a reasonable belief that he was entitled to the funds, the...factors proved otherwise. Respondent meticulously and systematically withdrew funds from his trust account that were either overlooked or forgotten by their intended recipients.

 The attorney was admitted in 1974 and had no prior discipline. (Mike Frisch)

September 13, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

I Promise...

The Florida Supreme Court entered an order yesterday revising the oath sworn by newly-admitted attorneys.

The new part of the oath:

To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications...

The court adopted the new language "to recognize 'the necessity for civility in the inherently contentious setting of the adversary process.' " (Mike Frisch) 

September 13, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Miscalculation

An Indiana attorney who consented to a 30 day suspension with automatic reinstatement got hit with an additional 10 days because he miscalculated the start date and filed a brief while suspended:

 Respondent admits that he mailed, and thereby filed and served, an appellant's brief in a case before the Court of Appeals on August 10, 2011—the date his suspension took effect—under the mistaken belief that his suspension began on August 12. A violation of a disciplinary suspension, even if merely careless, will not be condoned. The Court concludes that Respondent's suspension should be extended by ten days, followed by automatic reinstatement, unless the Commission files a notice before that date that there are other grounds for objection or that Respondent's description of the events is incomplete or inaccurate.

We all became lawyers because we were no good at math and science. (Mike Frisch)

September 13, 2011 in Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Stayed

The web page of the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct has a link to pleadings and orders in a case involving charges that a Bronx Surrogate approved estate payments to an attorney without required documentation and failed to report the attorney's ethical violations.

The New York Daily News reported on the charges:

Surrogate Judge Lee Holzman let cronies loot the estates of Bronx residents who died without wills, the court's watchdog agency charged Monday.

Holzman repeatedly approved dubious fees for a lawyer pal who was his chief campaign fund-raiser and allowed estate cases to languish for up to 10 years, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct charged.

Commission probers recommended the agency's board take disciplinary action against Holzman. The penalty could range from reprimand to removal.

The charges come two years after the Daily News exposed Holzman's lax oversight of estates in the Bronx, revealing fees the judge approved for his top fund-raiser, lawyer Michael Lippman.

Lippman, who raised $125,000 for Holzman's 2001 campaign, was for years counsel to the Bronx public administrator, whose office oversees estates.

In a complaint Monday, the commission said that between 1995 and mid-2009, Holzman repeatedly approved Lippman's fees without documentation that Lippman had done anything to earn them.

Over several years, Lippman collected "advances" on these fees at a time when he faced daunting debts, including foreclosure on a $400,000 mortgage and $1 million in gambling losses.

Last year, Lippman was arrested on charges of billing for $300,000 in work he hadn't performed. He's denied wrongdoing and awaits trial.

In the complaint, the judicial conduct investigators declared Holzman had "allowed a social, political . . . relationship to influence his judicial conduct."

An order was entered yesterday staying the proceedings and directing the commission to show cause by September 20 why the complaint should not be stayed or dismissed with the right to refile after the related criminal trial is concluded.  (Mike Frisch)

September 13, 2011 in Judicial Ethics and the Courts | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)