Dennis Earl Braun
State Bar No. 152816, West Hollywood (March 31, 2021)
Braun was disbarred after an appeal by the State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) that challenged the recommended discipline of probation and actual suspension for 18 months.
In his earlier consolidated disciplinary proceeding, Braun had stipulated to all facts supporting the two charges against him: failing to timely file a court-ordered proof of compliance imposed on disciplined lawyers (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20) and failing to comply with several conditions mandated in an earlier in a probation order. Specifically, he had failed to schedule and meet with his assigned probation deputy, and failed to submit his initial written probation report as required. In a pretrial stipulation, Braun also admitted to facts not charged: failing to file a second written report, as well as failing to notify the Office of Probation that he had completed the State Bar’s Ethics School as mandated.
Both the hearing judge below and panel on appeal found factors in aggravation — including three prior records of discipline. However, the panel allotted substantial rather than modest weight to Braun’s multiple acts of wrongdoing in the instant case.
In mitigation, both the hearing judge and panel allowed moderate mitigating weight for testimony by five witnesses and declarations by 18 individuals attesting to his good character and significant weight for entering into a pretrial stipulation.
On appeal, the OCTC disputed the significant weight afforded Braun’s claim of suffering from notable depression, raising concerns about whether it was established by expert evidence and whether it was established as the cause of his violations. The panel on appeal agreed — noting that the two mental health professionals who testified at trial were called only as character witnesses, and gave limited information about his condition. It also underscored that Braun had failed to create a nexus between his alleged depressive condition and his misconduct, nor did he establish that he had adequately recovered. As a result, it recommended the more strict discipline of disbarment.
Scott Michael Cantor
State Bar No. 79851, Las Vegas, Nevada (March 31, 2021)
Cantor was disbarred after being found culpable of two counts of professional misconduct.
He violated a court order by failing to file proof of compliance for disciplined lawyers (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20) and also failed to comply with several conditions imposed earlier in a probation order. Specifically, he failed to contact the Office of Probation within 15 days after the effective date of his discipline, failed to meet with his assigned probation deputy, failed to timely submit a written quarterly report, and failed to submit a declaration stating he had read the California Rules of Professional Conduct as well as specified sections of the Business and Professions Code as directed.
In aggravation, Cantor committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and had been disciplined by the State Bar for professional misconduct twice previously. In addition, he stipulated to committing two additional probation violations — failing file two additional written quarterly reports — and the State Bar Court judge awarded moderate consideration in aggravation for this uncharged conduct.
In mitigation, he was allotted moderate weight for entering into a stipulation regarding undisputed facts and an admission of documents.
Thomas Robert Loversky
State Bar No. 140128, Manhattan Beach (March 31, 2021)
Loversky was disbarred after he stipulated to failing to comply with several conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary order. Specifically, he failed to submit both a timely written report and timely rule and statute declaration to the Office of Probation and to present any proof of paying $125,000 in restitution to a client as mandated.
In aggravation, Loversky committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed his client by depriving him of a substantial portion of his life savings, and also had a prior record of professional discipline.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation.
Thomas Ernest Beck
State Bar No. 81557, Los Alamitos (March 31, 2021)
Beck was suspended from practicing law for 18 months and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing seven acts of professional misconduct.
His wrongdoing included failing to maintain adequate records of client funds, improperly using client trust fund money to pay personal expenses, and two counts of failing to maintain the required balance in his client trust account, as well as several counts involving moral turpitude: coercing a client to renegotiate his fee agreement and two counts of misappropriating client funds.
During a one-year period, Beck received $87,000 on behalf of two clients. After deducting fees and costs, he was required to hold $24,108 in trust on behalf of one client. However, the balance in his client trust account dipped impermissibly low — indicating a grossly negligent misappropriation of the client’s funds.
In another matter, Beck was retained to represent a married couple in a civil rights lawsuit against several entities after they had been arrested and held in custody for several hours. Their fee agreement provided Beck was to receive a 1/3 contingency fee of any settlement amount, plus 40% of gross sums recovered after that in addition to any court-ordered attorney’s fees — as well as a 50% attorney fee on an appeal in which the client was a respondent. Over a six-year period, Beck pursued the claims; one entity settled, but the cases against two additional entities remained and went to mediation. In that forum, the client was offered $100,000 to settle, but insisted on $1 million — an amount Beck counseled was unreasonable, and suggested she seek second opinions from other attorneys to assess the reasonableness of the settlement offer. The relationship between Beck and the client became strained with arguments over strategy and fee entitlements; the two eventually sued and cross-complained, and the matter ultimately concluded in a judgment against Beck and an award of $286,322 for the client, which was affirmed on appeal. During the time of contention, Beck impermissibly used fees in his client trust account to pay off lines of credit the bank had extended to cover his office operating expenses.
In aggravation, Beck committed multiple acts of misconduct and had a prior record of discipline.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, presented declarations from six attorneys and four former clients — all of whom attested to his good character, submitted evidence of performing community services, and took remedial action by voluntarily enrolling in the State Bar’s trust accounting school to help remedy his mismanagement of the trust account.
Douglas Macmillan Borthwick
State Bar No. 176372, Santa Ana (March 31, 2021)
Borthwick was suspended from the practice of law for 90 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing two acts of professional conduct — both related to failing meet the requirements for service and notice set out by statute.
Borthwick represented a client suing a business for failing to reserve or designate handicap parking spots as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). During the course of that litigation, defense counsel became aware that Borthwick filed a multitude of ADA-related complaints against landowners and business owners in violation of state law. A code section (Cal. Civ. Code Section 55.32(b)(2)) specifies that attorneys dealing with alleged violations of the ADA must “send a copy of the complaint and submit information about the complaint in a standard format specified by the California Commission on Disability Access (CCDA) on the commission’s internet website” within five business days of sending or serving the complaint.
Upon investigation, the State Bar got confirmation from the CCDA that Borthwick had filed at least 110 ADA-related complaints over a 14-month period without serving the commission or notifying it of any case resolutions.
In aggravation, Borthwick committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and had a prior record of discipline.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, expressed spontaneous candor and cooperation during the State Bar investigation, submitted eight letters by individuals taken from the legal and general communities attesting to his good character, and wound down his ADA practice prior to the investigation of his wrongdoing.
Renee Lillie Campbell
State Bar No. 104020, View Park (March 31, 2021)
Campbell was suspended for six months and placed on probation for two years. In her original disciplinary proceeding, she had been charged with eight counts of professional misconduct and was found culpable of five of them: failing to maintain client funds in trust, failing to maintain records of client funds, failing to withdraw fees within a reasonable time after they have become fixed, violating two sections of the Probate Code, and misappropriating client funds — an act involving moral turpitude. The wrongdoing related to two separate matters.
In the case involving the most culpability, Campbell represented an individual in a personal injury action after a vehicle accident that left him completely and permanently disabled. The client became angered and frustrated when his portion of the case was settled for $300,000 rather than pursued to trial, claiming Campbell “involuntarily forced him into the deal.” The client was also in dispute with his former attorney, who claimed he was owed $6,000 for reimbursement of costs and waived fees.
In a disbursement sheet later sent to the client, Campbell indicated that she held $6,000 as a “settlement balance-reserve fund” until the dispute was settled. However, she issued various checks and made several unrelated deposits related to the client trust account, withdrawing her fees in the case in a piecemeal manner rather than when they became fixed. The trust account balance dipped to an impermissibly low level — at one point, containing only $15. During the subsequent State Bar investigation, Campbell admitted that she didn’t maintain a client ledger in the case. The State Bar Court judge subsequently found her misappropriation of funds was grossly negligent rather than intentional.
In the second case, Campbell served on an advisory board with another woman, and the two became friends. The woman, who was elderly, then named Campbell as a secondary trustee of her trust, as well as agent in her durable power of attorney — granting access to her business and financial affairs. Several years later, the woman was hospitalized three times within a short period. During the woman’s hospitalization, Campbell sought letters from two doctors certifying the woman’s mental incapacity intended to trigger the power of attorney, and also added herself as a signatory on the woman’s savings account.
Over approximately the next 2 ½ years, Campbell performed many tasks for the woman, meeting with her at least three times every week: helping her pay bills, discussing caregiving schedules, taking her shopping and on other errands, and helping oversee her medical care. Campbell charged $365 and $380 per hour as “fair and reasonable compensation” as provided in the power of attorney. She withdrew nearly $311,500 from the woman’s savings account in cash withdrawals and cashier’s checks made payable to her.
Eventually, the bank manager met with the woman to review her account; she professed shock and confusion — believing the balance to be more than $250,000, when the actual balance after Campbell’s withdrawals was $63,000. The bank manager then filed a complaint with Adult Protective Services alleging elder financial abuse. When Campbell provided the investigating detective with invoices for her work, the criminal investigation was closed.
The woman then submitted a complaint to the State Bar, and hired a lawyer who accused Campbell of stealing the woman’s jewelry from her safe deposit box, as well as stealing money from the bank account. Campbell maintained the jewelry was a gift, but returned it; she kept the money, reasoning she had earned it under the terms of the power of attorney. Though a number of medically-administered mental status exams indicated the woman retained all forms of decisional and testamentary capacity, a legal probate specialist who reviewed the case documents concluded that Campbell was right to assume that the power of attorney was in effect — and that she had no legal duty to provide accountings for her work. The State Bar Court judge dismissed counts alleging misappropriation of funds, conversion of property, and breach of fiduciary duties in the case — finding Campbell culpable only of failing to comply with the law by breaching her duties to keep the principal informed and keep records of all related transactions (Cal. Prob. Code Sections 4234 and 4236).
In aggravation, Campbell committed multiple acts of misconduct that caused substantial harm to a vulnerable elderly client by making her feel financially insecure, and showed a lack of insight and remorse about the consequences of her misconduct.
In mitigation, she had practiced law approximately 27 years without a record of discipline, cooperated with the State Bar’s investigation by entering into a partial stipulation of facts, submitted evidence of performing substantial community service, and presented testimony from six witnesses — all of whom vouched for her good moral character.
Jamie Nichole Harris
State Bar No. 255826, San Jose (March 31, 2021)
Harris was suspended from the practice of law for two years and placed on probation for five years after being found culpable of seven of the 10 counts of professional misconduct charged. The wrongdoing, which occurred in a single client matter, included failing to refund unearned advance fees, failing to render an appropriate client accounting, failing to promptly return client funds after being requested to do so, and failing to maintain client funds in a trust account, as well as three counts involving moral turpitude: misappropriating client funds and two counts of making false and misleading misrepresentations.
The Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) of the State Bar appealed the hearing judge’s recommendation of suspension, arguing that the misconduct warranted disbarment. The State Bar Court panel, however, affirmed the findings of culpability, found that mitigating circumstances predominated — and noted that the OCTC’s excessive delay of four years in filing the case prejudiced Harris.
In the underlying matter, Harris was hired to help a client distribute and recoup funds related to a real estate investment — agreeing to hold a $5,000 deposit in her client trust account to cover charges for her services. The client paid a total of $70,000, including the initial deposit. After Harris paid her approved fees and agreed-upon payments to third parties, she should have retained just more than $30,575 for the client when the client terminated their relationship; the balance in her client trust account, however, was then zero.
The client contacted Harris two years later, requesting the funds she was owed. Though Harris promised to retrieve the client’s files from storage and provide relevant documents, she did not do so. She subsequently informed the client the funds “had been used up years ago,” though she had spent the client funds on personal expenses rather than earning them. She also generated new invoices which differed greatly from the originals; the trial judge ultimately found them to be “self-serving.”
In aggravation, Harris committed multiple acts of misconduct that caused significant harm to her client and failed to make restitution to the client.
In mitigation, during the time of the misconduct, she suffered extreme emotional difficulties while undergoing a divorce from a violent and abusive spouse and experienced an acrimonious breakup with a former law partner. She also presented evidence from 15 individuals who attested to her good character, was prejudiced by the State Bar’s lengthy delay in filing disciplinary charges, cooperated in the State Bar’s investigation by entering into a pretrial stipulation as to facts and admission of documents in the case, and displayed good conduct after engaging in the wrongdoing addressed in the instant proceeding.
Robert Blair Krueger, Jr.
State Bar No. 145328, La Jolla (March 31, 2021)
Krueger was suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year.
He had earlier been convicted of three misdemeanor offenses that occurred in two different incidents: driving under the influence of alcohol (Cal. Veh. Code Section 23152(a)), driving with a blood alcohol level of .08% or more (Cal. Veh. Code Section 23152(b)), and causing corporal injury to a co-habitant (Cal. Penal Code Section 273.5(a)).
After establishing a nexus between alcohol abuse and the charges, he was accepted into the State Bar’s Alternative Discipline Program (ADP). After Krueger successfully completed the ADP, the case was referred for a hearing and decision recommending whether professional discipline should be imposed for the underlying offenses.
In aggravation, Krueger had a prior record of discipline.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, produced evidence of his good character, and was experiencing stress due to family difficulties during the period of misconduct.
After considering Krueger’s successful completion of the ADP, the State Bar Court recommended that the lower level of discipline — 30 days of actual suspension — should be imposed.
Speros Peter Maniates
State Bar No. 107782, Huntington Park (March 31, 2021)
Maniates was suspended from the practice of law for 90 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing two acts of professional misconduct related to a single client matter: failing to perform legal services with competence and commingling his earned fees with client funds in his client trust account.
In the underlying matter, Maniates represented a client in a case alleging breach of a settlement agreement and an action to have her sister evicted from real property that had been the subject of their original dispute. The client communicated that the matter was time-sensitive, as she wished to sell the property.
For nearly a year after being retained, Maniates responded to the client’s repeated inquiries, but failed to take any substantive action on the eviction or to file any pleadings on her behalf. The client then terminated his services, and requested a refund of the $2,500 she had paid in advanced fees. Maniates sent a full refund with a check issued from his client trust account, which contained earned fees from other cases that he had failed to promptly remove from the account.
In aggravation, Maniates had been disciplined for professional misconduct twice previously and caused significant harm to his client, who was forced to hire a second counsel for legal help and was deprived of rental income from the subject property, which deteriorated during the time of his inaction.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and provided letters from six individuals taken from a range of the legal and general communities — all of whom were aware of Maniates’ misconduct and vouched for his honesty and integrity.
State Bar No. 42100, Reno, Nevada (March 31, 2021)
O’Mara was suspended from practicing law for one year and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing professional misconduct involving mishandling a probate matter in another jurisdiction. The Supreme Court of Nevada imposed a one-year actual suspension on O’Mara for his wrongdoing in that state.
The California State Bar Court judge found that the culpability of misconduct determined in the Nevada proceeding also warranted imposing discipline under California laws and rules.
O’Mara, licensed to practice law in both Nevada and California, prepared a will and durable power of attorney for a Nevada resident who was dealing with health problems. The power of attorney named O’Mara as agent; the will, which included a sizable bequest to O’Mara’s wife, also named him executor of the estate.
The client died three weeks after executing the will.
One of the client’s relatives subsequently filed a counter-petition alleging the bequest to O’Mara’s wife was fraudulent and the product of undue influence. The relative’s attorney had hired a genealogist who determined that the woman named in the bequest, who was identified by her maiden name, was actually O’Mara’s wife.
In a letter to the State Bar of Nevada, O’Mara falsely stated that the named woman was not his wife — and reaffirmed that lie under oath in a probate court deposition, in testimony at a probate hearing, and again at a Nevada State Bar Disciplinary Board hearing.
In aggravation, O’Mara committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that included dishonesty and caused significant harm to the administration of justice and to the client’s beneficiaries. Aggravating weight was also given to the uncharged violation of O’Mara’s failure to timely report his Nevada discipline to the State Bar of California, as required by statute.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation and had practiced law in California for more than 50 years without a record of discipline.
Daniel Jay Plotnick
State Bar No. 297068, Oakland (March 31, 2021)
Plotnick was suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to earlier pleading nolo contendere to one count of causing bodily injury to a person by negligently driving a vehicle while under the combined influence of alcohol and drugs (Cal. Veh. Code Section 23153(g)). The offense is a misdemeanor.
While driving under the influence of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, as well as two prescription drugs, alcohol, and cocaine, Plotnick collided with another car, causing it to spin and roll off the highway. Both cars were damaged, and the other driver and his passenger suffered injuries, but declined an ambulance and immediate medical treatment. When questioned at the scene, Plotnick told police officers he drank one beer, but did not disclose his use of drugs. He cooperated with field sobriety tests and agreed to provide a blood sample.
The matter was referred to the State Bar’s hearing department for a hearing and recommendation of whether any discipline should be imposed. The State Bar Court judge found the facts and circumstances surrounding the violation in the instant case did not involve moral turpitude, but did involve other misconduct warranting discipline.
In mitigation, Plotnick entered into a pretrial stipulation, presented evidence of good character and community service, has entered rehabilitation and continues to participate in treatment.
Ajay Paul Sahni
State Bar No. 297679, Corona del Mar (March 31, 2021)
Sahni was suspended from the practice of law for 18 months and placed on probation for three years after a conviction referral proceeding and determination that he had been terminated from the State Bar Court’s Alternative Discipline Program (ADP).
He had been accepted into the ADP after earlier entering a plea of nolo contendere to two felony violations: driving with a blood alcohol level of .08% or higher and causing an injury (Cal. Veh. Code Section 23153(b)) and fleeing a pursuing peace officer’s motor vehicle while driving recklessly (Cal. Veh. Code Section 2800.2).
The court filed an Order to Show Cause why Sahni should not be terminated from the ADP as a result of his failure to comply with the terms of the program’s contract, failure to participate in the Lawyer’s Assistance Program, and failure to comply with court orders regarding his participation in the ADP. No response was filed.
A confidential statement was lodged in the case, along with an amended stipulation that although the facts and circumstances surrounding his felony criminal convictions did not involve moral turpitude, they did involve other misconduct warranting discipline.
Aggravating and mitigating factors were determined. In aggravation, Sahni caused significant harm to the public and to the administration of justice — causing property damage and physical harm to individuals. In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation.
Because he was terminated from the ADP, the State Bar Court recommended that the higher level of discipline under the standards — including 18 months of actual suspension — was appropriate to protect the public, courts, legal profession, and maintain professional standards for attorneys while preserving confidence in the legal profession.
Paul Peter Terry, Jr.
State Bar No. 115221, Palm Harbor, Florida (March 31, 2021)
Terry was suspended for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to being found culpable of professional misconduct in another jurisdiction.
Terry, who was licensed to practice law in California and Nevada, entered into an arrangement with a Nevada construction company to directly solicit homeowners to retain his firm in exchange for payment. One of Terry’s employees gave the construction company copies of the firm’s fee agreement, client information sheet, and a list entitled “Documents Needed from Client.” The company distributed fliers door to door, and advertised “free inspections” to homeowners on a website. Those who opted for an inspection were informed about defects in their homes and provided Terry’s fee agreement if they wanted legal representation in dealing with the defects.
Invoices from the construction company totaled $1,800; the first one required Terry’s firm to pay $500 immediately, the second required payment of $1,300 at the conclusion of the case against the developer.
The State Bar of Nevada determined that the arrangement constituted violations of ethical obligations — including those relating to non-lawyer assistants and the obligation to communicate with prospective clients, and also violated that state’s Rules of Professional Conduct. As a matter of law, the culpability of professional misconduct determined in Nevada also warranted discipline under the rules and laws binding in California.
In aggravation, Terry committed multiple acts of misconduct. In addition, the State Bar Court judge allotted aggravating weight for the uncharged violation of failing to report discipline imposed by a foreign jurisdiction to the California State Bar as required.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law in California for approximately 22 years without a record of discipline, and provided letters from 11 individuals taken from a range in the legal and general communities — all of whom attested to his good character.
Russell Duane Westrup
State Bar No. 58610, Long Beach (March 31, 2021)
Westrup was suspended from practicing law for 90 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to pleading guilty to several misdemeanors related to driving while intoxicated. The conviction proceedings were consolidated, and the matter was referred to the Hearing Department for a determination of whether the facts and circumstances surrounding the offenses involved moral turpitude or other misconduct warranting professional discipline.
In both of the incidents involved, Westrup was stopped and arrested for driving under the influence. In one case, he had been spotted driving erratically; in another, he collided with a parked car. In all, he pled guilty to driving on a suspended license (Cal. Veh. Code Section 14601.5), as well as two counts each of driving under the influence of alcohol (Cal. Veh. Code Section 23152(a)); driving with a blood alcohol concentration of .08% or more (Cal. Veh. Code Section 23152(b)); and driving without a valid driver’s license (Cal. Veh. Code Section 12500 (a)).
In aggravation, Westrup committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 35 years prior to his first DUI conviction.
The State Bar Court judge did not find that moral turpitude was involved, but in recommending actual suspension, underscored that Westrup “had three DUI convictions within a 10-year period, each of which involved high levels of blood alcohol concentration,” that he was convicted of his second DUI while still on probation for the first, and drove while his license was suspended.
Raul Benjamin Garcia
State Bar No. 131912, Yucaipa (March 31, 2021)
Garcia was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing four acts of professional misconduct: two counts of holding himself out as entitled to practice law while enrolled as inactive, both of which involved additional counts of moral turpitude.
The State Bar’s Office of Attorney Regulation and Consumer Resources had informed Garcia that he would be enrolled as inactive due to failure to complete his Minimum Continuing Education requirements. Though he subsequently completed the requirements, and achieved active status, he appeared, filed, and signed pleadings on behalf of two clients while on inactive status.
In aggravation, Garcia committed multiple acts of misconduct.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 32 years before the instant misconduct.
Cory Jordan Nikolaus
State Bar No. 268032, Roanoke, Texas (March 31, 2021)
Nikolaus was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to earlier pleading nolo contendere to committing a battery (Cal. Penal Code Section 242); the offense is a misdemeanor.
In the underlying incident, Nikolaus was intoxicated and standing in front of a bar when he dropped his phone in the path of a man who was standing nearby, straddling a bicycle. The man then pointed out the phone to Nikolaus, who asked him for a high-five. When the man declined, Nikolaus rushed at him and placed him in a chokehold from the rear. He held the choke for about 40 seconds; the man was losing oxygen and unable to breathe. Several passersby eventually pulled Nikolaus off the man, and he was detained by security officers, who summoned police.
When an officer arrived at the scene, Nikolaus, an accomplished mixed martial arts fighter, told him: “I do Gracie Jiu Jitsu.” The officer called for back-up, and Nikolaus, who remained combative, was transported to jail. While in a holding cell there, he taunted officers, claiming: “I can choke out every one of you” and “I coach your kids; I’m going to kick them off the team.”
The State Bar Court judge determined that the facts and circumstances surrounding the battery did not involve moral turpitude, but did involve other misconduct warranting professional discipline.
In aggravation, Nikolaus caused harm to the man he attacked and was uncooperative during the criminal investigation — acting combatively with police officers during his arrest and booking and ultimately refusing to admit any guilt by pleading nolo contendere to the charge against him.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, presented evidence of performing civic service and charitable work, completed an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program, and was allotted slight mitigating weight for having practiced law for seven years and eight months without a record of discipline.
Troy Patrick Owens, Jr.
State Bar No. 298649, Chula Vista (March 31, 2021)
Owens was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to pleading guilty to one count of hit-and-run driving (Cal. Veh. Code Section 20002(a)), a misdemeanor.
In the underlying matter, Owens filed a stolen vehicle report with police, stating that his truck was stolen from where it had been parked in front of his home. He also called his auto insurance company, the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA) to make a payment, though no payment was due at the time and he made no mention of the stolen truck during that call. That same day, police found the truck more than 20 miles away from Owens’ home — abandoned and unoccupied — with damages that appeared to have been caused when it collided with metal poles.
A claim representative at AAA found Owens’ claim “suspicious,” and forwarded it to the company’s special investigations unit. The investigator found that AAA had already provided a payment of $12,238 for damages sustained to the truck. When Owens refused to provide AAA with his cellphone records, claiming they contained confidential information, AAA forwarded the matter to the local district attorney’s office for review and investigation. The phone records, obtained through a search warrant, revealed that Owens was actually in the vicinity of the truck collision when it occurred rather than at home as he had claimed.
In a subsequent interview with the district attorney’s office, recorded with Owens’ consent, he admitted he had been drinking during a holiday party, but left to resolve a dispute with his girlfriend, and struck the pole with his vehicle on the way to her house. He then panicked and abandoned the truck at the scene.
Owens subsequently reimbursed AAA for investigation costs and towing fees, and resigned from his position at the public defender’s office, stating he wanted to correct his actions.
In aggravation, Owens falsely reported his vehicle stolen, filed an insurance claim containing false statements, and accepted insurance proceeds from his falsified claim — all acts involving moral turpitude.
In mitigation, he suffered family and personal problems at the time of the misconduct prompted by the death of his grandmother and breakup with both his fiancée and another woman with whom he had become involved; he had been self-medicating with heavy drinking. In addition, he voluntarily entered an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program, as well as the Lawyer’s Assistance Program.
George Vincent Vargas
State Bar No. 234005, Laguna Hills (March 31, 2021)
Vargas was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to being convicted by a jury of agreeing to engage in prostitution (Cal. Penal Code Section 647(b)). The offense is a misdemeanor.
The matter was eventually referred to the State Bar’s Hearing Department for a hearing and decision on whether the facts and circumstances surrounding the violation of which Vargas was convicted involved moral turpitude or other misconduct warranting professional discipline.
As background, a sheriff’s department engaged in conducting a sting operation targeting individuals who were attempting to solicit prostitution. It ran an ad on a website that included three sexually explicit photos of women, one of whom was a brunette. Through text messages, Vargas arranged to meet a sheriff’s deputy posturing as an escort in a hotel room. Upon arriving, he remarked: “Oh, you’re not the brunette” — and was subsequently instructed to “place the money on the counter.” He was arrested after putting $200 in cash on a table in the room.
The State Bar Court judge determined that while the misconduct “evinces a lack of judgment,” it did not involve moral turpitude. However, it did warrant professional discipline.
In aggravation, Vargas had a prior record of discipline.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation.
— Barbara Kate Repa
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