Thursday, March 16, 2017
The Hearing Division Tribunal of the Law Society of Upper Canada revoked an attorney's license for criminal conduct that facilitated her client's multi-million dollar thefts.
David A. Wright (for the panel):– The Lawyer, Meerai Cho, was entrusted with the deposit money of over 140 condominium purchasers for units in a new building. The law required her to hold that money and not to release it except in specific circumstances. Contrary to the law, she released $13 million of purchasers’ money to the developer, her client, who stole it and appears to have taken it out of the country. Construction on the building never started.
Ms. Cho pled guilty to the criminal offence of breach of trust and is now in jail, sentenced to three and half years in federal penitentiary. Her plea to this offence means she has admitted that she had intent: in other words, that she either knew, was reckless, or was wilfully blind to the fact that she was participating in a fraud.
Today is about the consequences for Ms. Cho’s legal career. We find that her actions were professional misconduct: she knowingly participated in fraud and did not meet the standard of a reasonably competent lawyer. We order that her licence be revoked, effective immediately. That is the only appropriate penalty. Our reasons follow.
We want to start by talking about the victims. With Ms. Cho’s help, the developer, Yo Sup (Joseph) Lee, stole deposits they had paid for units in a condominium building that was to be built on Yonge Street in Toronto. The amounts taken from individuals range from just under $20,000 to nearly $400,000. Most people lost between $50,000 and $100,000.
Who are these people? Most are immigrants, largely from the Asian-Canadian community. Some were buying homes for their families, others were investing. Some were starting lives in Canada, some were starting families. Some were trying to start businesses in commercial parts of the building. All lost their hard-earned money. Their victim impact statements describe the consequences of the fraud, including significant personal trauma, impacts on lives and finances, and on their confidence in Canadian institutions and the legal profession.
Many of them are here today. We want to say to them that we recognize the pain they have experienced and continue to experience, and also that we know their journey with the Law Society is not over yet as the question of payment from the Law Society’s compensation fund still needs to be considered by the relevant committee. We have had you foremost in mind as we considered the appropriate findings and penalty for Ms. Cho.
We recognize that Ms. Cho did not benefit from the fraud personally. She sent the money to Mr. Lee. It appears that her misconduct stemmed from her naïveté and her belief that he would give the money back and she would help save the project. We also recognize that she has paid a heavy price: financially by trying to help repay the money and having her assets garnished, by going to jail and in terms of her health. We acknowledge her contributions to the community, her spirituality and that she has no discipline history as a lawyer. The character letters filed speak well of the rest of her career and her personal life.
We also recognize that she has co-operated in this process and in the criminal process. She pled guilty. Here, while she did not admit misconduct, she did not oppose a finding and she and her counsel helped this matter come forward very quickly after the criminal proceedings. This is all to her credit.
She argues that she should get the second most serious penalty: termination of her licence through permission to surrender, rather than revocation. Despite Mr. Trudell’s strong submissions, in our, view revocation is absolutely necessary...
Lawyers and paralegals have a privilege that others do not have – that is the essence of being a regulated professional. We are required to uphold the public trust and have an obligation to do so at all costs. A transgression as serious as this – no matter what the person’s record, remorse, or standing in the community – generally leads to revocation of one’s licence. This is needed to maintain confidence in the profession and for the protection of the public.
Our Order will also provide that the Lawyer must repay the Compensation Fund for any amounts it pays up to the $9.7 million set out in the agreed statement of facts in the criminal matter. We recognize that it is unlikely Ms. Cho will be able to pay all this money. If the victims are compensated from this Fund, which is paid into by the Law Society’s licensees, Ms. Cho should be ordered to replenish it to the extent possible, given what could be a significant payout.
thestar.com reported on the criminal case. (Mike Frisch)