Does your attorney have a criminal background?

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by Jeremy Rogalski

khou.com

Posted on May 23, 2012 at 10:09 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 10 at 3:00 PM

HOUSTON—Attorneys in Texas can snort drugs, flee from police, even offer to trade their legal services for sex, and still keep their Texas State Bar law license. Those are some of the findings of the KHOU-TV 11 News I-Team after analyzing records from various criminal courts along with documents from the Texas State Bar.

Take the case of Kristen Pain.

In 1996, she was caught using powder cocaine, on video, during an undercover law enforcement sting.

“Do you have any straight ones? These are a little crinkled,” Pain is heard saying on the video. She was asking for a crisp dollar bill to roll into a straw to snort lines of the drug.

“She knows exactly what she’s doing,” said Mark Stephens as he watched the 15- year-old video.

Stephens was a police investigator during the 1996 case.

“If you look at her actions and you look at the way she handled herself and look at what she said, it’s not her first rodeo,” Stephens said, indicating his belief that Pain was an experienced drug user.

After Pain snorted a line, Stephens and other law enforcement officers rushed in and arrested Pain and a companion.
 
But it turns out, this was no ordinary bust.

Why?

It is because Kristen Pain, drug user, was also a Harris County Assistant District Attorney who had prosecuted drug cases.  It’s something Stephens has strong feelings about.

“It’s a complete breach of the public trust,” he said.
 
 And for that breach, Pain spent a month and a half in jail and got eight years deferred adjudication, a form of probation.
 
But as for her law license? Documents show at her Texas Bar discipline hearing, at first the group wanted to disbar her. In the end, it decided to instead suspend her license while she was on probation.

Pain would go on to successfully complete her criminal probation and to have her license reactivated.

As a result, today Kristen Pain is still a licensed Texas attorney. It’s something that baffles non-lawyer Mark Stephens.

“Explain to me why someone who does this is still allowed to practice law. I don’t have an explanation for it,” he said.

The  I-Team contacted Pain, who declined our request for an on-camera interview. However, Pain said that she no longer practices the law but just keeps up her bar membership fees because she worked hard to earn her license and is proud of it.  She also gave us a written statement that in part reads:

“... While my conduct in 1996 was aggregious (sp), it was personal in nature. No clients or cases were affected by my behavior and no misconduct  with regard to my practice of law was ever alleged or substantiated. For this reason, it is my humble opinion that the 8-year suspension of my law license (in lieu of disbarment) was fair and appropriate.”

But the I-Team found other cases of Texas attorneys committing crimes, where the Texas Bar appears to have issued no discipline whatsoever.

Take Austin attorney Steven Copenhaver. In 2005, he offered free legal services to a woman in exchange for sexual favors. According to court papers, little did he know that the woman’s mother, husband, and social worker were listening in from another room.  As a result, Copenhaver was charged with class-B misdemeanor prostitution, resigned his position as a leading member of a school board, and publicly apologized. In addition, he was sentenced to a year and a half of deferred adjudication probation, according to state criminal records.

But when it came to his law license, Copenhaver’s profile on the Texas Bar’s website shows no sign he was disciplined in any way for the crime. In fact, in a phone conversation with the I-Team, he said the State Bar has never contacted him about the incident.

Or consider the instance of Dallas-area attorney Bruce Patton, who spent two years in state jail. Yet the crime that got him there seems to have had no effect on his law license.

According to court documents, in 2005 Patton was stopped by a state trooper for speeding. After talking to Patton and his female companion, the cop says that he became suspicious and ordered a  K-9 unit or “sniffer dog” to be brought out to the scene.

A camera mounted on the dash of the trooper’s vehicle recorded everything.  It shows that not long after the trooper told Patton that a K-9 was on the way, Patton took off in the car, leaving his companion behind.  Thus began a multi-car chase to find the attorney. 

Eventually arrested, Patton was charged with felony evading and found guilty by a jury.
 
Since his imprisonment, Patton has continued to practice as a Texas attorney.

KHOU-TV phoned him for comment, especially about that moment on the highway when he decided to flee.

“I was addicted to drugs,” Patton said. “And I had a little bit of drugs in the back seat of the car, and so I drove off to throw out the drugs I had in the car.”

Patton also told us that, despite his two years in a state jail, he has never been disciplined or contacted by the Texas Bar regarding his crime.

So what does the State Bar have to say?  It declined an on-camera interview and refused to talk about specific cases.

So we went to their headquarters in Austin for a visit.

Kim Davey, State Bar Spokesperson:  “There is a process in place in order to protect the public from attorneys who break the rules.”

I-Team: “And when they do break the rules they still hold licenses.”

Davey: “There is a process in which those attorneys are disciplined, that’s really all I can tell you at this time.”

“It’s about making sure that the process is transparent,” said Rodd Santomauro, an attorney with the legal reform group HALT.

Santomauro wouldn’t comment on individual cases, but said the Texas State Bar could be more protective of consumers. 

One problem he pointed out, is that unlike the California Bar, Texas has no mandatory rule or law that makes attorneys report to the authority when they are convicted of a crime.

In a separate statement, the Texas Bar told KHOU-TV that it has tried getting such a requirement enacted but that it was defeated in the last state referendum.

For now, the group is relying on an outreach to the state’s various prosecutors asking them to report to the Bar when a Texas attorney is convicted.  However, once again, it is on a voluntary basis.

And Santomauro points out that in other states, like Mississippi, the bar won’t license anyone with a felony background.
 
”You’re convicted of a felony, you’re not going to practice (there),” Santomauro said.

But not so in Texas: Here you can be an ex-con and still become a lawyer.

For example, in 1987, Altaf Adam was charged with multiple counts of money laundering in federal court. 

His indictment claims that as the chief financial officer of a local bank, he instructed a number of individuals to open accounts at other Texas banks.
According to the indictment, he then gave them cash in amounts less than $10,000 to be deposited in those accounts. (Note: Cash deposits over $10,000 are reported to the federal government.)

The government claimed, checks were then written off from these various accounts and deposited into Adam’s bank.  Prosecutors claimed that Adam would next wire the money from his bank to accounts in other countries, such as Panama.

In the end, Adam pled guilty to one count of what is commonly known as “money laundering” and got a three-year suspended sentence, community service duty, and a $5,000 fine. His bank would eventually fail and be taken over by the FDIC.

But in the meantime, Adam enrolled in a Texas law school, graduated, and at some point applied to be a licensed attorney.
 
The duty of screening applicants to the Texas Bar actually rests with an agency under the control of the Texas Supreme Court. It’s called the Board of Law Examiners and it said it does a thorough job of evaluating candidates, including looking into their pasts and any possible criminal records.
 
In Adam’s case, court records indicate that he disclosed his conviction on his bar application as required. The Board then sent one of their investigators to federal court to review the case file for the crime. Eventually, the Board approved Adam’s bar application and he is currently a practicing attorney in the Lone Star State.

The I-Team made numerous attempts to contact Mr. Adam and get his input and comment for this story, including writing and e-mailing a number of business and home addresses and also calling phone numbers supposedly associated with him.  We were ultimately unsuccessful.
Also, the Texas Board of Law Examiners declined to do an on-camera interview with the I-Team and said that individual cases could not be discussed because of federal privacy laws.

However, after our encounter with Kim Davey of the State Bar of Texas, the organization also answered more of our questions in written form.  It says that “the protection of the public is our primary mission” and:

“On the subject of the openness and transparency of the Bar, we can point to numerous programs we have established to increase public awareness and improve access to the grievance system.  In particular, our online information regarding how to file a grievance was recently revised to make it easier for the public to access and understand the rules and acquire the grievance form.  This information is available in English and in Spanish.  We also provided information and relevant materials regarding the discipline process to entities throughout Texas, including county and district clerks’ offices, law libraries, legal aid organizations, local bar associations, federal public defender’s offices, and prisons.”

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