Friday, July 19, 2013

William Conour: Why Did the System Fail to Protect Hoosiers from an Unethical Attorney?

Why was William Conour allowed to continue practicing law without the public even being so much as warned about he was allegedly doing?  It is a question Indiana attorneys and lay persons interested having a legal system with honest, ethical attorneys in this state should be asking. It is certainly something the Indiana Supreme Court should be investigating in open and public hearings.  Who knew what when and failed to take action to protect Hoosiers?

William Conour
A couple days ago, the Indianapolis Star had a lengthy update on the fortunes of William Conour, the former "Super Lawyer" who according to the federal criminal complaint (credit to the Indiana Law Blog for easily making this available on-line)  he later pled guilty to, "devised a scheme to defraud, and to obtain money by means of materially false statements and fraudulent pretenses.  Mr. Conour wants out of prison so he can continue to work so he can pay the victims.

News of Conour's unethical behavior didn't just come to the forefront recently. It has been known by those at the Disciplinary Commission for years.  The Indiana Lawyer reported back in September 2012:
John Daly, a partner at Golitko & Daly P.C., said he alerted the disciplinary commission in July 2008 that Conour wasn’t paying a client in a nursing home from a six-figure special-needs trust that was supposed to be set up to compensate for injuries she sustained falling down an elevator shaft.

“To me, the ‘A’ story is the tremendous delay between the time I made the initial complaint to … this year,” said Daly, who stopped working with Conour in February 2008.

“Bill did a lot of mayhem in the meantime,” Daly said.

Disciplinary Commission Executive Director G. Michael Witte said the commission’s confidentiality rules restrict him from confirming or denying complaints
Michael Witte
against Conour prior to the filing of the verified complaint against him in May.

But Witte said building a case against Conour took time, as evidenced by the federal court information alleging that Conour’s actions date to 1999. It took years for the FBI to make the case, he said, and the commission has far fewer resources.

“This case is one that’s frustrating to a lot of lawyers because Mr. Conour was a go-to lawyer for a lot of lawyers around the state,” Witte said. “Because he was this go-to person for lots of referrals, he engaged in more deceit and cover-ups to hide things from those other attorneys.

“He had to avoid the suspicion of all the lawyers who sent him work,” Witte said.

“The most difficult part about this is that the rules of confidentiality sometimes hamstring us from being able to use outside resources and exchange information,” he said. “I can’t just pick up the phone and call the FBI and say, ‘We’ve got a case against a lawyer.’

“The only thing we can do is utilize our own investigation resources to pursue our own independent investigation,” Witte said. That includes one full-time investigator and 12 staff attorneys who handle about 1,200 complaints per year.
According to my source, the Disciplinary Commission had complaints against Conour going back more than 10 years.  The rules already allow the Commission to seek an order that a lawyer's license be suspended during an investigation.  Even if the Commission didn't go that route, simply filing charges would have alerted potential future victims of Conour and allowed them to steer clear of Conour or take precautions to protect themselves.  But the Commission led by Donald Lundberg,and now Michael Witte, failed to take any action to protect the public from Conour's unethical, indeed criminal, behavior.

Donald Lundberg
In the Indiana Lawyer article, Executive Secretary Witte seeks, as is often the case with the Commission's leadership, seeks to hide behind confidentiality rules when questioned about the Commission's handling of the complaints against Mr. Conour.  But the purpose of confidentiality rules is to protect the attorney, not to protect the Commission from allegations that it mishandled a disciplinary matter against an attorney.  Mr. Conour can easily waive confidentiality rules and undoubtedly would do so if asked   Let him waive confidentiality so we can have an investigation of how the Conour grievances were handled by the Commission.

In the Indiana Lawyer article, Executive Secretary Witte offers another line of defense - that the Commission is overwhelmed with investigations and prosecutions of attorneys and the Commission simply wasn't able to timely complete the decade long investigation of Mr. Conour.   Rather, it is an example of failing to properly prioritize attorney discipline in this state. The focus should be on attorneys committing serious ethical violations, especially when those violations endanger the public. That's not the case with how the Commission has operated under Lundberg and Witte.

Full disclosure, I have a complaint against me filed by the Commission for harshly criticizing a judge in a reply email, sent to the attorney and others involved, for the judge's mishandling of an estate case in which I represented an heir.  My disciplinary hearing is set before a hearing officer for later this month.  (The disciplinary process began shortly I wrote on my blog the result of my research finding that over a three year period 397 of the 400 published disciplinary cases involved sole practitioners or small firm attorneys.)  The Commission has had no problem finding the resources to vigorously pursue my case using their top attorney, Mr. Pruden, a former interim Executive Secretary, to prosecute me.  I have no doubt the Commission will insist that I lose my law license for speaking out, in a private communication no less, about how an elected judge handled the case.  Apparently I'm a much bigger threat than Mr. Conour and those who commit felony type criminal conduct and never get charged by the Commission.

But my case as an example of misplaced priorities is not alone.  A few years ago, the Commission filed charges against an attorney for in a conversation referring to the Washington Township Small Claims Court as a "Mickey Mouse Court" because, allegedly, the court was allowing a landlord's attorney to set the court schedule.  Attorneys who bounce one check from their trust account, perhaps because of some mistaken bank fee (IOLTA accounts are not supposed to have bank fees applied to them), are dealt with very harshly by the Commission even when there is no evidence that the mistake involved unethical behavior.  But Mr. Conour who had at least a decade and a half history of dipping into his trust account for personal use, depriving clients of their settlements, is allowed to continue practicing law with no charges filed?  Questions need to be asked about why the Commission failed to protect the public from Mr. Conour.

I realize the Commission will likely be successful in its efforts and I won't be a practicing lawyer much longer. That, however, will never deter me from speaking out for the improvement of the legal profession, including reform of the disciplinary process.  The Disciplinary Commission should exist primarily to protect the public from dishonest, unethical, and especially criminal attorneys.  Any government body that is allowed to operate in virtual secrecy with almost no public oversight, as has been the case with the Disciplinary Commission, is inevitably destined to become politicized in its activities, enforcing the rules unequally and protecting certain attorneys over others.   In this case, the result of the Commission's failure to act is that a lot of innocent people were harmed.  That is unacceptable.


Pete Boggs said...

Which overpopulated profession runs 'n rigs this "system?"

mike lee said...

If you were to Poll the good folks in Dearborne County(Aurora,Lawrenceburg) as to their opinion on Witte, you would find that most if not all would have wanted this man Dis-Barred. His behavior on the Bench was deplorable.The entire Community was scared shitless of this guy.He carried a gun at all times.dsoceekIf you lived in his neck of the Woods you were okay though.