Hot on the heels of the story about the New Jersey lawyer who managed to avoid interruption to his legal career after admitting forgery, we have more disturbing evidence that a profession that insists on self-regulation may have a rather different concept than the public about what constitutes “fitness to practice law.”
The professional ethics rules in every state declare that substantial dishonesty and especially failure to obey the law call into question a lawyer’s trustworthiness and are grounds for suspension of disbarment. Many states automatically disbar any lawyer convicted of a felony. But in Wisconsin, a local newspaper investigative report reveals, there are 135 attorneys continuing to practice law despite convictions for battery, theft, fraud and repeat drunken driving. Some even had active licenses even as they served time behind bars, giving a new meaning to the term, “jail house lawyers.” Another 70 of Wisconsin’s attorneys-in-good-standing managed to avoid discipline by getting charges reduced or entering into deferred prosecution agreements.
Among the shocking examples cited by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
- Joseph Engl “Reprimanded after he was convicted in 2004 of using the computer in his downtown law office to set up an attempted sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl who was actually a Milwaukee County sheriff’s deputy. Engl, now 34, was sentenced to four years’ probation for the felony. His law license was never suspended.”
- Hazel Washington “Her first conviction came in 1979 when she was sentenced to five years in state prison for defrauding Medicaid out of nearly $329,000. She received her law license in 1988 after then-Gov. Tommy Thompson granted her a pardon. In 2006, she was convicted of federal tax evasion, sentenced to five months in prison and up to five months of house arrest. She lost her law license only temporarily. It was reinstated in 2008.”
- Michael Gral “Once a partner at the state’s third-largest law firm, he was sentenced in 2006 to two years in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.75 million in restitution after he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a case that involved a $20 million fraud scheme. Last March, one month after he completed probation, the court reinstated Gral’s law license, despite objections from his victim and his former firm.”
- Gary R. George “Once one of the most powerful Democrats in the Legislature, George was sentenced in 2004 to four years in federal prison for illegally accepting $270,000 in “kickbacks” – a phrase the Supreme Court itself picked up in its reinstatement order. George got his law license back in September, the month after he completed federal probation.”
Is there some unique rationale behind the Wisconsin Bar continuing to tolerate such untrustworthy members and to allow such lawyers to continue to prey on trusting clients? A belief in contrition and redemption, perhaps? A belief that anyone can make a mistake? Well, the report found that 40% of the Wisconsin attorneys who avoided being stripped of their licenses for offenses that would have them flipping burgers in other jurisdictions struck again, breaking more laws, breaching more ethical duties. Either the Wisconsin Bar isn’t doing its job, or it has an unjustified faith in unethical lawyers.
When told of the newspaper’s findings, three state Supreme Court justices told the Journal- Sentinel that it may be time for an in-depth review of the state’s lawyer-discipline system.