An Oshkosh personal injury attorney could lose his law license over his January 2014 conviction for not paying taxes and allegations that he mismanaged his firm’s trust account and misappropriated money withheld from employees’ paychecks.
George Curtis, 78, was sentenced to six months in federal prison in May 2014 for failing to pay taxes for two years and filing tax returns for three years but not paying the taxes owed on those returns. He appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed his conviction in March. Curtis is serving his sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Ill. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, he is set to be released Nov. 24.
But the Office of Lawyer Regulation, in a complaint filed Monday, is asking the state Supreme Court to discipline Curtis, a 1962 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, for more than his recent conviction.
The OLR alleges Curtis, who worked for the Curtis Law Office in Oshkosh, also failed to pay the federal taxes withheld from his law firm’s employees’ paychecks in 2013 and 2014, two of the years during which Curtis was convicted for not paying taxes.
The complaint also alleges that Curtis, who was responsible for managing his firm’s trust account and the firm’s office manager and bookkeepers since 1978, advised his clients and the firm’s employees to keep portions of personal injury awards and settlements that were or could be disputed by a third party in the firm’s trust account.
The money, Curtis allegedly told them, would be paid to the clients once an agreement with the third party was reached or after the statute of limitations had passed.
But according to the OLR, Curtis never reviewed the account to make sure the withheld money was disbursed on time. In fact, many of the firm’s client files were destroyed, although the firm continued to hold money in the trust account for those clients, according to court documents.
According to the complaint, the trust account had not been regularly reconciled with client ledger balances and the ledger for account fees charges since July 2004.
It wasn’t until October 2009, the OLR alleged, when Curtis Law Office transitioned to a computerized trust account system, that staff discovered that thousands of dollars in old settlements and awards had never been paid to clients. Between 2009 and April 16, 2014, the firm’s staff attempted to identify the amounts held in the trust account, which held more than $1 million, and find and pay the clients who were owed the money.
As of Jan. 29, the firm could not identify to whom more than $23,000 in the trust account belonged. Estate proceedings had to be reopened for at least 12 clients who had died while Curtis Law Office was holding money on their behalf.
The OLR’s complaint also alleges that Curtis held money withdrawn from the firm’s employees’ paychecks intended for the firm’s 401(k) program in the client trust account rather than paying that money into the 401(k) plan.
The OLR is asking the Supreme Court to revoke Curtis’ license.
Curtis’ attorney in the federal tax evasion case, Frank Gimbel, of Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown LLP, said he would not be representing Curtis in the OLR matter.
Curtis has no history of professional discipline. He is a past-president of the Wisconsin Association of Justice, a voluntary bar association for trial attorneys. He received a lifetime service award from the organization in 2011.Follow @erikastrebel