David Powers, a certified public accountant working at PricewaterhouseCoopers, standing third in his class at St. John’s University School of Law, was preparing to graduate this spring. Seeking to move from accounting to law (and who wouldn’t?), Powers was completely candid to the New York Appellate Court’s Character and Fitness Committee, disclosing an expunged 1999 conviction for drug possession on his record and the circumstances surrounding it. He wanted to know if the conviction would be a hurdle to his acceptance for admission to the New York Bar. But when he asked St. John’s to send the Bar a letter of support, it not only refused but rescinded his admission, reports the New York Post.
Now Powers is suing, since St. John’s taught him well.
The school maintains that Powers was not candid when he originally sought admission, revealing the conviction but leaving out the detail that his legal troubles began when he tried to sell LSD and Ecstasy to a New Jersey undercover cop. Powers spent a year in an in-patient rehab program and completed three years of probation in the drug possession case after a plea bargain that knocked the charges against him down from drug dealing. It appears that Powers did tell the whole truth to his accounting firm when applying for a job, and when he applied, successfully, to have his conviction expunged in 2005. But St. John’s, which awarded Powers a $20,000 scholarship when it admitted him, argues that he willfully withheld information that might have interfered with his acceptance. After an exchange of correspondence, it kicked him out of school.
This is a tough call. Powers had no choice but to reveal the whole sordid story to the Bar, because the application reads:
“Have you ever, either as an adult or a juvenile, been cited, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted or tried for, or pleaded guilty to, the commission of any felony or misdemeanor or the violation of any law, except minor parking violations, or been the subject of any juvenile delinquency or youthful offender proceeding?
If you answer yes, state the charge or charges, the disposition thereof and the underlying facts. Although a conviction may have been expunged from the records by an order of a court, it nevertheless should be disclosed in the answer to this question. Please note that you should have available and be prepared to submit or exhibit copies of police and court records regarding any matter you disclose in reply to this question.“
The initial and understandable reaction is to be sympathetic to Powers, who has obviously turned his life around. He seems to be something of a star at PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the inconvenient truth is that the St. John’s application for admission to the law school is just as clear as the Bar’s application regarding arrests and convictions:
“Have you ever, either as an adult or a juvenille, been cited, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted or tried for, or pleaded guilty to, the commission of any felony or misdemeanor or the violation of any law, except minor parking violations, or been the subject of any juvenile delinquency or youthful offender proceeding?
If yes, please explain in a supplementary statement the charge or charges and relevant facts, including the nature of the offense, the dates and courts involved, and the penalty imposed, if any. Please note: although a conviction may have been expunged or sealed by an order of the court, it nevertheless should be disclosed in answer to this question.”
Based on this (and I am assuming here that the current application is not materially different from the 2005 version Powers filled out), St. John’s is correct to argue that it was deceived. Perhaps, if Powers had disclosed what he was required to, another applicant who had managed to avoid criminal activities would have been accepted in his place. Perhaps Powers would not have received the scholarship.
I would hesitate to declare St. John’s unreasonably forgiving if it chose to excuse what Powers did, but I cannot condemn their strict actions against Powers as unfair. He withheld requested information that was relevant to the admission process. Trustworthiness and honesty are the core character requirements of the legal profession. I have criticized the profession for being too prone to excuse many attorneys’ deficits in these virtues too often in the past to find fault now with a law school that insists on holding its graduates to a higher standard.
Powers is paying a high price for a lack of candor, but it was his misrepresentation, and he is accountable. I wouldn’t bet on his lawsuit being successful. At least he still has a successful career in accounting, a profession that accepted him despite his past. What this says about the comparative ethical standards of the legal and accounting professions, I’ll consider another day.