Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Passing the blame

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

In a story about another case of attorney/paralegal embezzlement of client funds, TampaBay.com reports,

A paralegal and her attorney boss spent about $70,000 of clients’ money on shopping sprees, lavish lunches and vacations. They got caught. Each blamed the other for being primarily responsible.

And these two were friends! We will likely never know the extent of each person’s responsibility here. Certainly, the attorney has ultimate responsibility because she’s the attorney, but the paralegal does have a past that indicates she may not be entirrely at fault:

…Lausburg had been implicated in crimes before. In 2005, she pleaded guilty to forgery and uttering a forged instrument after she was accused of forging the signature of a circuit court judge. At that May 2010 hearing, Andrews said Lausburg was “at least as culpable if not more culpable than Ms. Miller.”

The story raises many issues. There is always, I suppose, the potential that an attorney will at least attempt to blame a paralegal for misconduct or even missed deadlines that are really the attorney’s fault. However, there are steps paralegals can do to protect themselves:

1. Do your jobs and do them well. Do it with integrity at every step.  Document what you do;

2. Do NOT become even tangentally involved in unethical or criminal conduct;

3. Do quit a job if you are being asked to or told to engage in serious unethical conduct or any criminal conduct. (The “serious” is there only because I consider “Tell the client I’m not in” to be unethical – it is a lie, but I would not advise a paralegal to quit his job over it;)

4. Do report serious unethical behavior and criminal conduct to the proper authorities (unless prohibited by the rules governing client confidentiality; and,

5. Do consult with an independent attorney before deciding to do  or not do numbers 3 and 4.

 

Parsippany paralegal plea bargains – To prison for posing

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

I’ve previously noted several cases involving “paralegals” involved in crimes, I’ve avoid doing so of late, in part because there are so many of such stories in the papers. As I’ve written there are many issues surrounding these crimes – lack of attorney supervision, paralegals becoming part of a lawyer’s conspiracy (perhaps unwittingly at first) rather than reporting them, the effects such publicity has on the public’s perception of paralegals as a profession, the fact that the profession is often tarnished by people who are not really professional paralegals because just about anyone can call themselves paralegals, and the inability of the profession to “screen out” bad apples.  Today’s post focuses on the last of these issues because the first line of a report in the Daily Record is so striking in that regard:

A paralegal from Parsippany with a criminal history of thefts was offered a plea bargain Wednesday of 18 months in state prison to resolve a charge of posing as her daughter to get a credit card.

I do not know if this person was actually working as a paralegal at the time of the events leading to these charges, but she does have a history of working for lawyers as a paralegal because she has a history of stealing from those attorneys:

Yturbe was sent to prison in 2004 for stealing $35,900 from a Montville lawyer who employed her as his paralegal. She was released after serving nine months of a four-year sentence. She also has a previous conviction for stealing $3,220 in 2001 from an attorney in Morristown.

While these previous convictions (or at least the second given the amount) raise issues regarding attorney supervision, my question is why is it that “A paralegal from Parsippany with a criminal history of thefts,” i.e., how can it be that a person with this history is still allowed to be a paralegal? The answer, of course, is that anyone can be a paralegal. There is no “good character” requirement as there is for attorneys or for paralegals in parts of Canada. It is not likely that a lawyer with this history would have retained a license. At the very least, the Daily Record‘s story would say “a former attorney with a criminal history of thefts,” thus indicating to the public that the profession had recognized the individual as a bad apple and tossed him from the barrel. The paralegal profession does not have this capability and it continues to harm the profession.

One word changes paralegal to felon.

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

The word is “fraudulent” as in “Dubin served as the settlement agent for the vast majority of the fraudulent loans obtained in the course of the scheme. In that capacity, she organized closings, prepared documents, and disbursed the fraudulently obtained proceeds to various defendants.” PRNewswire.comreports on the paralegal’s sentencing: three years in prison, three years of supervised release, 3 years forfeiture of $7 million and payment of approximately $11.6 million in restitution.

Unlike other instances of paralegals involved in crime, this is not a case of a rogue paralegal harming clients and their employers through lack of attorney supervision. Dubin appears to have been just on member of a large conspiracy of the type that always amazes me. According to the report, “Of the 27 defendants charged in this case (United States v. Aleksander Lipkin, et al.), 25 pleaded guilty; one of the defendants, attorney Alexander Kaplan, 35, of Brooklyn, New York, was found guilty following a jury trial and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 6, 2010. ”

The amazement does not come from the number of defendants. It comes from the sheer display of greed on the part of the participants. These are all lawyers and others who are highly educated and likely to make significant amounts of money – more than most people will ever see – if they employ their skills and talents in an honest way. Instead they choose to feed their own greed without a thought for the hundreds of distressed homeowners who lost the titles to their homes and faced eviction. And apparently thought they would never get caught! They were not suffering from alcoholism or depression, and this was not a one-time slip. They were simply dishonest and greedy on a huge scale. And now they are convicted felons.

No profession is free from such “bad apples.” This scheme involved lawyers, a paralegal, loan processors, mortgage brokers, real estate appraisers, and loan account executives. Other schemes have involve doctors, accountants, chiropractors, etc. That, however, does not make other members of the profession feel any better about the stain on the profession or the harm done to the people the profession hopes to serve.

This Does Not Help the Profession’s Image

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

It is disappointing and frustrating to read so often of paralegals involved in fraudulent schemes with their attorneys. In the minds of many members of the public each such incident tends to counterbalance dozens of instances of service by paralegals to the community and the legal system. Here is one from Massachusetts reported at UPI.com. In this case, unlike another mortgage fraud case discussed here, the paralegal appears to be a major participant if the facts alleged are true:

A Worcester, Mass. grand jury indicted an Oxford, Mass. attorney and three accomplices late last week for a complicated scheme to defraud desperate homeowners facing foreclosure and mortgage lenders in real estate transactions involving distressed properties following an investigation by the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Named in the indictments handed down September 28 were Allen Seymour, 41, and Raymond A. Desautels III, 43, both of Oxford; and Jason Passell, 51, and Judith Piette, 44, both of Worcester.

Seymour faces multiple counts of forgery, uttering, inducing a lender to part with property and larceny. Desautels, a former real estate lawyer, now disbarred, is facing multiple counts of inducing a lender to part with property; Passell, a real estate paralegal, is charged with forgery and multiple counts of uttering; and Ms. Piette, a notary public, faces multiple counts of filing a false written report by a public officer.

The scheme itself is complicated and the details do not matter much to the point here, but you can read them by clicking the link above.

One wonders on what basis this man was qualified as a “real estate” paralegal. On the one hand, it seems to lend credence to the argument for licensing and regulation. On the other hand, the attorney was regulated and was still part of the scheme.

When Paralegals Work for Dishonest Attorneys

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Lynne Devenney of Practical Paralegalism has an important post today about a paralegal pleading guilty to fraud for her participation in a mortgage fraud scheme. The paralegal’s participation was small according to the newspaper report, “Norwood received “nominal gifts totaling less than $500” for preparing false closing documents for three mortgage fraud cells, court document [sic] say.” But “[The paralegal] could face two years in prison and a $20,000 fine for two counts of fraudulent real estate settlement services.”

Lynne’s post includes this well-stated admonishment:

I don’t know the circumstances of her involvement, but what I do know is that Norwood is paying a stiff price at a very young age for, at best, extremely poor judgment – including possible jail time and a permanent criminal record. Her participation in this mortgage scheme will impede her chances of becoming re-employed or eventually moving up a professional career ladder, not only as a paralegal, but in almost any job where a background check is necessary.

It’s hard to imagine any gift being worth giving up your future.

In previous posts here we have discussed the quandaries in which paralegals may find themselves when confronted with unethical conduct on the part of an attorney. In those instances there is often a conflict between personal integrity and what the paralegal sees as their (short term) personal interest. However, I suggest that when the attorney is involved in criminal conduct the issues for the paralegal are not just ethical issues. In such circumstances paralegals must take positive steps to protect themselves.

It is truly tragic when a young person gets caught up in a scheme of this sort. Paralegals should be aware that there is a danger in just working in an office where this sort of thing is happening even if you don’t receive any “gifts.” If you are aware of the scheme, it is not difficult to commit an act that will be perceived as being in furtherance of a conspiracy, even if you resolve not to become involved. It is difficult to see in advance how a legitimate year-end bonus will be perceived by law enforcement authorities or a jury once placed in the context of such activities. Even if you can eventually show that you did not participate, the costs of responding to an investigation or defending an indictment are  quite large. In addition, even when you successfully defend against the charge your professional reputation can be tainted by association.

At least one state (South Carolina where this incident took place) is reported as still prosecuting the crime of “misprision” or failure to report a felony. While it is apparently rarely prosecuted by federal law enforcement, this blogger is aware of at least one case where it has been prosecuted in the context of a law office.

If you become aware of this type of conduct in the office in which you work, I recommend getting legal advice from an attorney outside the office immediately. As difficult as it is likely to be, you may need resign sooner rather than later as a matter of self-preservation as well as ethics.

Professionals Think About How to Do What They Are Doing

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Professionalism is knowing “how to do” as well as knowing “what to do.” Often, to the frustration of attorneys and paralegals alike, work assignments are incompletely or incorrectly done not because the paralegal lacked the ability or the motivation, but because they did not understand the assignment. In this regard, communication between the paralegal and attorney is essential. More on that in a later post.

Before an assignment is begun, before you can even determine what clarification you need from the attorney, you must organize and plan. The first step in that provess is to analyze the assignment – break it down into its elements in a way similar to breaking down a statute or cause of action into its elements.  If we want to analyze whether our client is guilty of “Assault While Hunting,” we establish the elements and make a checklist for comparison to the facts of our case: (1) while hunting, (2) while in pursuit of wild game or game birds, (3) with criminal negligence, (4) with a dangerous weapon, (4) causes, (5) bodily injury, (6) to another. If any one of these is missing, the crime is not completed, e.g., if while hunting in pursuit of wild game or game birds with criminal negligence I cause my partner bodily injury by letting a tree branch swing back into his face, I have not committed the crime because element (4) is not present.

The same analysis can help understanding and completing an assignment. Let me give you an example from one of my classes:

ANALYZING AN ASSIGNMENT

The first step in completing any assignment, exam question or discussion forum is to break it down into its elements, i.e., analyze it. Let’s take a look at the Unit One Discussion forum as an example:

Either post an original answer or a substantive response to someone else’s original answer to the following question. State how critical and analytical thinking apply to discerning an answer to the question. Simple responses such as “I agree” are not acceptable. Check back regularly and participate in the discussion.

Please keep in mind that while this is an informal setting, your answers are being reviewed by all students and assessed by the instructor. Follow the writing rules. Use complete sentences and paragraphs. Make your postings concise and well organized. Spelling, grammar and punctuation count!

This can be broken down into the following tasks:
• Either post an original answer or a substantive response
• State how critical and analytical thinking apply to discerning the answer to the question
• Check back regularly and participate in the discussion
• Follow the writing rules

o Use complete sentences and paragraphs
o Be concise and well organized
o Use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Take moment now to go back and review your response to the discussion forum assignment using this list of the assignment elements as a checklist. Did you complete the assignment? Did you not only make a post but state how critical and analytical thinking apply to discerning the answer to the question? Did you check back regularly and participate in the discussion?

This same process can and should be used when a paralegal receives an assignment from their attorney. For example, assume you receive this assignment in an email from your attorney:

Our client is concerned about his son, Paul. Paul is 26 but has never held a job, tends to drink to excess, gamble and (our client thinks) use illegal drugs. Our client wants to be sure that Paul’s basic living expenses are covered if our client dies but does not want to simply give the money to Paul who will surely just spend it all on gambling, drugs or just have it taken away from him. He has heard of something called a “spendthrift trust” and would like to know if it is a good thing for him to do. We need to know whether “spendthrift trusts” are enfoced in Mississippi. If there are we need to explain to our client some general background on what they are and how they work. Check whether there are any statutes which may relate to them. If there are any limits on their enforceability in Mississippi courts and what those limits are.

This can be broken down into individual tasks:

A.) Research

  1. whether there is such a thing as “spendthrift trust,”
  2. some general background on what they are and how they work,
  3. whether they exist in Mississippi,
  4. whether there are any statutes which may relate to them, and
  5. whether there are any limits on their enforceability in Mississippi courts and what those limits are.
  6. B. Report results to attorney

    Questions for attorney:
    In what format do you want the report to you – memo, draft letter to the client?
    How much time do you want allocated to this project?
    What is the deadline for completion?
    If I start by determining whether such trusts are not enforcable in Mississippi, do you still want the others issue researched?

Organization and planning are foundational elements of The Empowered Paralegal. They are so important as tools for the professional paralegal that Vicki Voison, The Paralegal Mentor,

applies them to home meal planning in her post today, The Paralegal’s Guide to Easy Meal Planning & Preparation :

First, there are two time organization issues involved with meal preparation

Planning: When you walk in the door from a long day of entering billable hours you have to know what you’ll be fixing for dinner. If you don’t, you will definitely resort to fast food, take-out or cereal. To know what you’ll be fixing, you must have a plan.

Breaking the work into manageable chunks: The task of fixing dinner seems overwhelming: too many steps and too much to do. If you look at cooking as one giant step, it’s bound to seem overwhelming. If you break it down into smaller pieces, it becomes manageable.

Read the rest of her post for the similarities between how the process is applied to classroom assignment, work assignments and home meal planning.

Facebook Ethical Issues

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Paralegal Gateway’s Weblog has an interesting post on potential ethical issues arising from the use of Facebook by members of the legal profession. Entitled “Lawyer Cannot Ask Paralegal to ‘Facebook Friend’ A Witness,” the post includes, “The Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Committee hustled out its Opinion 2009-02 which held that a lawyer could not ask a “third person” (presumably a paralegal or office employee) to Facebook-friend a deposition witness so the lawyer could surreptitiously access the witness’ Facebook page….The Philly Bar concluded that this was improperly deceptive under their Rule 8.4…”

You might think that the paralegal/attorney relationship, being somewhat personal in natural would not entail much by way of formal ethical discussion.  However, that relationship can be the source of some of the most difficult ethical decisions a paralegal has to make: What do I do if I know my attorney is violating the Rules of Ethical Conduct and/or a law? And, even worse, what do I do if my attorney asks me to do something ethical?

Fortunately, you can find some guidance in the ethical codes of various paralegal associations. In an earlier post I discussed the importance of you, as a professional, belonging to one or more of these associations and participating in their listservs, reading their journals and the like. The ethical codes of these organizations are not laws, but they do provide a good framework to use in facing these difficult issues.

Some common sense must be invoked in interpreting the language of the code. The attorney asking you to tell a client he is in court when he is really in his office is dishonest, but is not likely to rise to the level requiring (or even suggesting) reporting.

As stated above, these codes do not have the force of law. In particular situation you may want to seek legal advice yourself. Some states do have particular laws making failure to report certain actions such as judicial bribery, a crime.  However, for the most part, it is really of a matter of ethics rather than legal consequence for the paralegal (unlike an attorney who can lose his license.)  In most cases it is going to be a matter of balancing your personal interest (you will likely lose your job if for no other reason than the attorney may lose his license), against your personal integrity, protecting the public and maintaining the integrity of the legal profession.  In the end, I would hope that personal integrity wins out over personal interests, but you must be the judge in each situation.

If you do decide to report, I do suggest obtaining legal advice first from an attorney outside of the one in which you work. Remember that attorney has a firm obligation to keep what you tell her confidential. That attorney can advise you regarding protections to which you may be entitled, the proper authority to which you should report and the correct procedures for reporting.  Generally, you will receive immunity from being sued by your employer for slander and libel, and may be entitled to certain protections against on-the-job retaliation under “Whistleblower” laws. She will help you analyze the situation to determine whether you have the necessary facts, have properly interpreted the facts and validate your decision regarding the proper balancing of interest and integrity.