The office says State Bar standards are different
After a trial late last year, the State Bar Court of California concluded that Carlsbad lawyer Patricia Gregory improperly withdrew more than $112,000 from client trust funds.
A judge recommended Gregory for disbarment in March, and the attorney is fighting the decision. She is not eligible to practice law while the review process runs its course.
Gregory has not been prosecuted, nor have several other attorneys who faced such findings from the bar. Critics say the District Attorney's Office should act in such cases, but the staff says there are many complicating factors, such as different standards of proof and the need to set priorities.
Others who have not been prosecuted:
• Todd Smith, a Carlsbad attorney, wrote checks on a client trust fund for personal use. State Bar records do not specify how much Smith took from his client. He stipulated to the State Bar that he wrote checks on his attorney-client trust account for his own use multiple times.
• Former attorney Steven Weisenberg was disbarred in 2004 after the State Bar Court found that he sent papers that appeared to be a court order to a title company. Weisenberg "engaged in an elaborate and highly deceptive scheme in an effort to obtain for his clients the results they desired, and in doing so, he committed a serious act of fraud," Judge Richard A. Honn wrote.
• San Diego lawyer Todd Hilts took more than $8,800 from one of his clients, according to State Bar records. "By misappropriating at least $8,848.69 belonging to (his clients), respondent committed an act involving moral turpitude, in willful violation" of state law, the bar court found.
Hilts did not respond to an email and phone call seeking comment, and Smith did not respond to a note left at his address. Weisenberg did not return a voice-mail message left at his Point Loma home.
Gregory said she had oral agreements with clients giving her access to their money for payment of legal fees, and her mistake was not putting the agreements in writing.
"Every single dollar that was taken was a fee," she said.
Bonnie Russell, an activist from Del Mar who follows the legal system, said such cases should not be limited to licensing penalties.
"I want to know that if someone steals $100,000, they're going to be prosecuted," Russell said. "Otherwise it sends a very clear message to other attorneys that it's a free ride."
The District Attorney's Office rejects any suggestion that it shies away from prosecuting lawyers who commit crimes while performing legal work.
Damon Mosler, who oversees the division that prosecutes lawyers, police officers and public officials, said the standard of proof in State Bar Court is lower than in Superior Court. He said certain cases are better suited to a regulatory venue.
"If there is misconduct by lawyers in their capacities as lawyers, generally we rely on the State Bar to be the investigating agency," he said. "I don't view attorneys any differently than the other types of cases that would come in here."
Mosler said he could not discuss specific investigations or why the office pursues or drops them, but the office pointed to two recent prosecutions of lawyers accused of criminal misconduct.
San Diego attorney Ryan Aulis pleaded guilty to two felonies earlier this year and was recommended for disbarment after forging the signature of a client to falsely obtain property.
Carlsbad foreclosure attorney Michael Pines is fighting a host of charges, including four felony stalking counts and two felony charges of of unauthorized practice of law.
The District Attorney's Office also prosecuted a lawyer who used his cell phone to snap pictures of naked women in tanning salons and another lawyer accused of beating a neighbor.
"Nothing makes us more frustrated than an attorney abusing his or her authority," Mosler said. "But it does not always rise to a criminal charge."
Luwain Ng of Carmel Valley retained Gregory for divorce proceedings and is now suing her former lawyer.
"I tried to file a police report and they did not want to take a report," Ng said. "They said ‘Take it directly to the district attorney.' Then I got a letter saying this is a State Bar matter and they are not going to pursue it."
Gregory maintains a website that urges people who need a lawyer to call her office. "Please give us a call or contact us by email," it states.
Gregory said she is not practicing law while ineligible. She said she is holding the website in place for when she resumes her business, as she expects to prevail in her appeal and resume her practice.
Denise Doll has been homeless off and on since she hired Gregory to perform various legal work in 2007.
She received a pair of settlements in cases Gregory handled and assumed the money was being held in the attorney-client trust fund.
Doll has asked the District Attorney's Office to file criminal charges against Gregory, without success. She has filed a civil complaint against her former lawyer.
"I don't have a political agenda," Doll said. "I just want the district attorney to do her job."
Doll provided The Watchdog a voicemail left for her by prosecutor Jeff Dort, who said he was rejecting the case because he would need police reports, bank records and documents compiled by the bar before he could make a decision about prosecuting Gregory.
Last month, after The Watchdog approached the District Attorney's Office about Gregory's case, Doll said she was contacted by an investigator from the DA's office saying the case was being re-evaluated.
The State Bar refers a small number of cases to the District Attoney's Office for prosecution -- perhaps two a year, Mosler said. A State Bar spokeswoman said the office does not track referrals to county prosecutors.
So far this year, the State Bar referred 253 cases to prosecutors, police and other investigators statewide. Last year, 128 people were disbarred.
By Jeff McDonald