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Legal Learning: When lawyers behave badly

James Manahan

“Lawyers Behaving Badly” was the headline of a recent article about the annual report of the Minnesota Office of Lawyer Professional Responsibility. Illegal and unethical behavior of lawyers is something that distresses me, so the information in the report seemed important enough to write about in this column.

This is especially true because of the headlines we are seeing now about important lawyers who are going to prison. President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen (Thomas Cooley Law School), pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, including arranging payments during the 2016 campaign to suppress two women’s accounts of alleged extramarital affairs with Trump.

Cohen testified that he did this “in coordination with and at the direction of” his client. He also admitted concealing over $4 million in personal income from the IRS. Paul Manafort (Georgetown Law School), Trump’s campaign chair from June to August 2016, was convicted of eight felony counts of tax fraud and bank fraud.

Alex van der Zwaan (King’s College London) pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, went to prison for 30 days and was deported back to Holland.

These reports remind me of all the lawyers who worked for President Richard Nixon and were convicted of felonies after he resigned in 1974. John Ehrlichman (Stanford Law School), John Dean (Georgetown Law School), Charles Colson (George Washington Law School) and John Mitchell (Fordham Law School), the U.S. attorney general, all went to prison.

Robert Khuzami, the federal prosecutor in Michael Cohen’s case, said this after Cohen’s plea: “We are a nation of laws, with one set of rules that applies equally to everyone.” William Sweeney of the FBI added that “we are all expected to follow the rule of law.”

If anyone should know this, it should be a lawyer.

And yet, here in Minnesota the annual report of the Office of Lawyer Professional Responsibility has some distressing information. Five attorneys were disbarred last year:

  • Terri Fahrenholtz lost her license for stealing a client’s retainer.
  • Diane Kroupa, a U.S. Tax Court judge, defrauded the U.S. of $532,000.
  • Jesse Matson misappropriated a filing fee and failed to return unearned fees.
  • Steven O’Brien misappropriated more than $300,000.
  • Geoffrey Saltzstein misappropriated $78,000.

On top of that, 26 attorneys were suspended for periods ranging from 30 days to five years. Their offenses were varied:

  • William Bulmer II was suspended for having sex with his client’s wife while representing the client on a first-degree murder charge.
  • Shawn Siders solicited a minor to engage in prostitution.
  • Patrick Nwaneri filed an untimely brief and made a false statement under oath.
  • Randall Tigue failed to maintain trust account books and records.

As pointed out in the report, “public discipline is imposed not to punish the attorney, but to protect the public, the profession and the judicial system, and to deter future misconduct by the attorney and others.”

The Office of Lawyer Professional Responsibility employs 12 attorneys, seven paralegals, an office administrator, 10 support staff and one law clerk to accomplish this goal. Their budget is about $4 million a year, funded primarily by lawyer registration fees, not by tax money. Last year, they opened 1,110 new files for complaints against possible lawyer misconduct.

The office maintains on its website, lprb.mncourts.gov, a list of disbarred and suspended attorneys. You can also check the public disciplinary history of any Minnesota attorney by using the “Lawyer Search” function on the first page of the OLPR website.

While it is always disheartening to see the number of attorneys who engage in serious professional misconduct, it is important to keep these numbers in context. Minnesota has about 25,000 attorneys engaged in the active practice of law, most of whom uphold the integrity of the legal profession every day.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer. He can be reached at jimmanahan@gmail.com.

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