Victims are caught in a long nightmare Restitution: Clients burned when their attorneys stole their money often suffer again when the lawyers ignore court orders to pay it back.

February 23, 1998|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In March of 1995, as she waited to be paid more than $100,000 that disbarred lawyer Raymond A. Tubman had stolen from her four years before, Mary E. Meyer was struggling to make the rent on her two-bedroom apartment in Owings Mills.

Another former Tubman client, Desiree Johnson, had hired a new lawyer to get back the $27,000 accident settlement Tubman had gambled away.

And Tubman? He was on a ski trip.

No matter that probation agents had been looking for months for the disbarred attorney, trying to serve a warrant to haul him into court for failing to paying back his victims - and for not reporting to agents as required.

No matter that he'd gotten out of prison early, convincing a city judge that he was eager to begin reimbursing the people he'd wronged.

Tubman had started a new life as the assistant manager of a troublesome nightclub in Waverly. And no one was making him account for the old.

Tubman's case illustrates the arduous battle that victims of unscrupulous lawyers must wage to recover their lost money.

"I sued the lawyer myself, got a judgment. Fine. Try collecting it," said Alan Hoff, a lawyer who represented Johnson, who works at Baltimore City Community College. "You try garnishing the nightclub. I tried that. They never answered it.

"By the time this thing is done, it's just a nightmare for this woman."

Attorneys convicted in Maryland courts of stealing from their clients often serve little or no time in prison, according to an examination by The Sun. Disbarred and initially disgraced, they have re-emerged as paralegals, doctor's assistants, bail bondsmen, substitute teachers and doctoral candidates.

What many haven't done is pay back the victims they were ordered by judges to compensate for losses - even though failure to pay could land them back in prison.

Often, they don't pay because judges and parole commissioners don't make them.

Prosecutors say that sometimes it's more important to try to get convicted lawyers to pay back their victims and give up their right to practice law than it is to lock them up for a long time.

Daniel Freed, a professor emeritus at Yale Law School who is a national expert on sentencing, says that requiring a thief to pay back a large sum of stolen money can be "more useful to society."

But if the lawyer doesn't pay, it is up to the client to navigate the claims process of the state's Clients' Security Trust Fund, which compensates victims of attorneys. The fund, which calls itself a resource of "last resort," tends to pay only a portion of what was taken, and usually only after the victim has exhausted other avenues. Its money comes from a $20 annual fee paid by each Maryland lawyer - one of the lowest amounts for such funds in the country.

And the fund, like some other state funds, will not pay back the customary one-third contingency that the attorney usually takes as his fee.

"We've protested it," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, whose office has prosecuted 20 lawyers since 1988. "We just don't think [victims] should have to pay attorneys' fees when the attorney has done them wrong. These people have been through the wringer, and it's unfortunate. Even the full amount wouldn't make them whole."

When the client fund has made a payment, the lawyer in question is then supposed to pay the fund back. But often, they don't.

Consider these cases:

A lover of expensive thoroughbred horses, Baltimore lawyer Jerome E. Michaelson stole at least $300,000 that was supposed to pay the medical bills of 10 personal injury clients. He went free after serving six months of a year-long prison sentence in a halfway house, then moved to Connecticut, where he manages two tennis clubs.

Though he has paid some debts and issued promissory notes to pay others, Michaelson and prosecutors have disagreed over the amount he owes those from whom he stole. A judge has been asked over two years to schedule a hearing, but no date has been set.

Attorney Jay Seth Engerman was ordered to pay $61,997 in restitution when he pleaded guilty to charges of theft in 1994. But Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown Sr. wrote that failing to pay would be considered a violation of the former lawyer's probation "only if Defendant shown to be financially able to pay." Now disbarred and living in Florida, Engerman is working on his doctorate in alternative dispute resolution and receiving disability pay from the government - but says he's too mentally ill to hold a job.

Prosecutors say disbarred lawyer Theodore A. Cavacos, son of the man who was once the unofficial mayor of Hampden, stole more than $1 million from clients and would-be real estate investors. Out of prison, he was called into court several months ago to tell why he wasn't making regular progress toward his $50,000 in ordered restitution. Despite his criminal record, the state's pharmacy board allowed him to renew his pharmacist's license.

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