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View from around the state: Lawyer discipline needs independent review

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The state agency that polices lawyers has launched a review of its processes after revelations that dozens of lawyers with criminal records are still practicing law in Wisconsin and that unsuspecting clients may have entrusted lawyers suspected of corruption with thousands of dollars.

Rod Rogahn, chairman of the Officer of Lawyer Regulation’s Board of Administrative Oversight, says the committee he appointed will look at “the fairness and effectiveness of the process, and the transparency of it. We’re looking at all of those issues with an eye toward protecting the public.”

That’s a step in the right direction, but we think the committee should take at least one more step: It should evaluate how the agency hands out discipline and decides whether lawyers can be readmitted to the bar.

We also share the concern expressed by state Rep. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin. She told the Journal Sentinel’s Cary Spivak that the new committee “sounds like the fox is guarding the chicken coop.” The committee will report to the Office of Lawyer Regulation, which, in turn, is an arm of the state Supreme Court.

In February, Lazich asked the state Legislative Audit Bureau to evaluate the lawyer discipline system.

Her request is pending. The creation of this new committee does not erase the need for that independent review.

And that review should include the way the agency disciplines lawyers.

Three state Supreme Court justices — N. Patrick Crooks, Michael Gableman and David Prosser — have called for just that.

As it stands now, the maximum penalty a lawyer can receive is a five-year license revocation. The term disbarred, at least in Wisconsin, doesn’t appear to mean very much. We’d favor a lifetime ban for the most serious offenses.

Spivak and Ben Poston’s “Bar None” series found that clients hired lawyers suspected of wrongdoing and entrusted them with their money because there is little or no transparency in the state’s disciplinary system.

One example: Peter Elliott received a check for $100,000 from a new client four months after regulators began investigating him. Now disbarred, Elliott is serving a 10-year federal prison term for stealing $3.6 million from clients. He recently was sentenced to five more years in prison for bank robbery.

Spivak found that as of earlier this year at least 135 lawyers who have criminal records were practicing in Wisconsin. His investigation also found that Wisconsin was more lenient than other states in dealing with misbehaving lawyers. Even those convicted of serious crimes keep practicing law.

More transparency is essential.

Lawyers often argue that it’s unfair to disclose complaints as they are received because many of them do not hold up to scrutiny. But that argument sounds suspiciously like a way to dodge accountability.

Spurious claims should be sorted out, but credible allegations ought to be disclosed. And a lawyer’s disciplinary record should be easy to find. It isn’t now. The State Bar of Wisconsin’s popular lawyer directory certainly doesn’t mention it. Instead, with some digging, it can be found on a site known as the Wisconsin Attorneys’ Professional Discipline Compendium.

The Office of Lawyer Regulation receives about 2,400 complaints annually against lawyers. Certainly, it should protect the reputations of lawyers falsely accused. But it also must find a way to be more transparent with the public. And it should evaluate both how it metes out punishment and whether that punishment is adequate to the task.

Chris Banaszak, the Milwaukee lawyer who chairs the committee, summed up the issue in an interview with Spivak: “The question is, should there be some point earlier in the process where people should be alerted that there are issues with an attorney.”

Our thought: Yes, there should be. The committee is expected to file a report this fall. It needs to be thorough. In the meantime, the Legislative Audit Bureau should launch its own investigation. The people of Wisconsin deserve nothing less than full confidence in the attorneys they hire.

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