Wisconsin At least 135 attorneys keep licenses after convictions

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- At least 135 attorneys with criminal convictions continue to practice law in Wisconsin, including some who were able to keep licenses while serving time and others who got them back before their probation ended.

The Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee reported Sunday that some lawyers practicing now in the state have felony or misdemeanor convictions for fraud, theft, battery and repeat drunken driving. One child-sex offender got probation for his crime but never lost his license, while a politician convicted in a check-kiting scheme was reprimanded but kept his license.

The newspaper reviewed the licenses of nearly 24,000 Wisconsin lawyers against state and federal court records, and found that lawyers convicted of crimes are then subjected to a slow-moving disciplinary process that operates largely behind closed doors.

Another 70 lawyers were charged with crimes but were able to get the charges reduced or convictions avoided by completing a deferred prosecution plan. All 70 got the green light to practice law again.

The review showed Wisconsin's standards to be comparatively lenient for dealing with lawyers who break the law. Many other states immediately suspend the licenses of lawyers if they are convicted of serious crimes, but Wisconsin in some cases has allowed convicted criminals to keep their law licenses even while behind bars.

"The system is run by lawyers and is for lawyers," said Michael Frisch, a national expert in legal discipline who teaches law at Georgetown University. "It's called self-regulation, and it's a pretty good system for lawyers."

The state's low-profile system for disciplining lawyers drew more attention recently after the disclosure that the Office of Lawyer Regulation took no action against former Calumet County District Attorney Kenneth Kratz after he sent suggestive text messages to domestic violence victims.

"The Kratz matter caused everybody to stop and pause and say we should see if we could improve the system," state Supreme Court Justice N. Patrick Crooks said.

When told of the newspaper's findings, Crooks and two fellow state Supreme Court justices said it could prompt an in-depth review of the state's lawyer-discipline system.

Among the felons currently licensed to practice law in Wisconsin are:

-- An attorney who used his law office computer to try to set up a sexual encounter with a 14-year girl who was actually a Milwaukee County deputy. The lawyer, now 34, was sentenced to four years probation and his law license was never suspended.

-- An attorney with several convictions dating to 1979, including for defrauding Medicare and federal tax evasion, who lost her law license temporarily but got it reinstated in 2008.

-- A former partner at the state's third-largest firm sentenced in 2006 to two years in prison and $1.75 million in restitution after pleading guilty to a $20 million mail fraud scheme. His license was reinstated last March, one month after he completed probation, over the objections of his victim and his former firm.

-- Gary R. George, a former Democratic state legislator sentenced in 2004 to four years in federal prison for accepting $270,000 in kickbacks. He got his license back in September, the month after he completed his federal probation.

Veteran Appeals Court Judge Ralph Adam Fine said he believes all felons should be banned for life from being lawyers unless there are some "extraordinary" circumstances.

"There are plenty of good, honest lawyers around," Fine said. "Society isn't going to struggle to find legal representation."

Published: Tue, Feb 1, 2011


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