Suit Spurs Calls for New Lawyer Discipline Model at California State Bar

By SUDHIN THANAWALA | January 12, 2015

The former executive director of the California organization charged with rooting out lawyers who cheat clients or botch cases says he was fired after reporting that disciplinary files were deliberately being removed to make its case backlog appear smaller.

The State Bar of California counters that Joseph Dunn, who is also a former state senator, was terminated after it received “serious, wide-ranging allegations” against him.

The internal warfare at the nation’s largest state bar is reviving criticism that its disciplinary system is weak and lets bad attorneys off the hook.

Some say the episode shows a broken, dysfunctional institution that needs restructuring to properly police its more than 249,000 members.

“The state bar for the last generation has been a completely dysfunctional organization,” said Peter Keane, a former state bar vice president who teaches at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco. “It seems to survive somehow, but … it gets worse with each iteration.”

To practice law, attorneys must be members of the bar, a public corporation created by the state legislature. The bar collects yearly dues that largely fund its operations.

In November, Dunn – an ex-Democratic lawmaker from Orange County – was removed from his $259,000 executive director’s post after four years. Within days, celebrity attorney Mark Geragos filed a lawsuit for Dunn alleging “glaring injustices, unethical conduct and massive cover-up that has crippled the State Bar’s ability to function.”

Dunn said Jayne Kim, the bar’s chief prosecutor, altered reports to understate the backlog of disciplinary cases and make her office look more productive. She removed 269 cases from September 2013 reports to a board of trustees’ committee and used them to post false and misleading information on the state bar’s website, the suit alleged. Dunn also said Kim was failing to enforce a recent state law intended to prevent lawyers and people posing as lawyers from defrauding immigrants, and he accused the bar of wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars by hiring an outside firm to investigate him.

Kim, through a state bar spokesman, declined comment.

The bar is investigating allegations against Kim, Acting Executive Director Robert Hawley said. The bar has been working vigorously to educate the public and partnering with law enforcement authorities to root out immigration fraud, Hawley said.

Two days after Dunn’s lawsuit, the bar said in a statement that the action was baseless and Dunn never identified himself as a whistleblower.

Instead, the bar said it had received unspecified complaints against Dunn, at least one from an unnamed high-level employee. It also defended use of the outside firm, saying bar officials determined the firm’s proposal would allow the investigation to be done in the “most cost-effective, comprehensive and timely manner.”

Geragos disputed an allegation that Dunn tried to push through the sale of the state bar building in San Francisco without telling trustees that the state Supreme Court had concerns. Geragos also denied that a $5,600 tab Dunn ran up at a Los Angeles restaurant owned by Geragos was excessive. He said the cost of the going-away party for the former bar president was covered by a discretionary fund and was less than a similar event for another departing president.

“I think (these allegations) clearly arise from the fact that he caught the chief trial counsel cooking the books,” Geragos said.

The bar’s disciplinary process has faced scrutiny before. A 2009 state audit found that the cost of the disciplinary system had gone up by $12 million, or 30 percent, to $52 million from 2004 through 2008, but the number of investigated complaints declined. The bar also provided misleading information about the time required to process disciplinary cases and about its case backlog, the audit concluded.

Since then, the bar has made progress in reducing its backlog and speeding up its investigations, according to its most recent discipline report to lawmakers.

The chief justice of the California Supreme Court, which helps oversee the bar, was asked during a meeting about the controversy surrounding Dunn’s ouster. Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she wasn’t sure the matter reflected a “systematic structural implosion” at the bar.

But some say it shows the political turmoil that has racked the bar, including clashes with former Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who held up dues authorizations in 1997 and 2009.

“This constant soap opera that we’ve lived through, it’s a distraction,” said David Cameron Carr, who defends attorneys facing state bar prosecution. “It takes a lot of energy away from the bar’s discipline mission.”

Hawley said California’s model, similar to more than two dozen others, is still the best way to regulate attorneys. California has more staff focused solely on prosecuting attorneys than other states.

“We protect the public better here than any other state does,” Hawley said. “The beauty of it is the public doesn’t pay for that.”

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