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Monday, April 5, 2004
Attorney profited, but his clients lost
Page 3 of 3

That pattern — high income, deep debt — has dominated Earl's life. Last year, a bar hearing officer examined Earl's history of financial pressures, including bankruptcy and tax liens, and concluded that it might have pushed Earl to cross the line and take money from court-appointed clients.

Earl, 49, belongs to one of Grant County's most prominent families. His father, three brothers and a son are lawyers. He lives in an exclusive lakeside subdivision that warns visitors of video surveillance.

When Earl sought protection from creditors in 1989, Bankruptcy Judge John Rossmeissl initially turned him away, saying he was being "less than forthcoming" about his financial situation.

In an oral ruling, Rossmeissl raised concerns about Earl's timing:
781 cases, 4 attorneys, $500,000
Although paid with public funds, Tom Earl's income as administrator of a public-defense contract was not public record. But with information drawn from interviews and letters, it can be approached like a math problem
Two months before declaring bankruptcy, Earl took a family vacation in Mazatlan. He also put $160,000 in construction costs into a new home. Earl's creditors included people who helped build that home.

In another instance, the judge noted that Earl used his household goods as loan collateral in late 1987, placing their value at $60,000. When he filed for bankruptcy a little more than a year later, he valued them at just $4,000.

Testifying in the bankruptcy proceedings, Earl explained the difference as liquidation value versus purchase value.

The judge called his explanation "disingenuous."

Earl finally received bankruptcy protection in 1990. But new financial pressures were looming.

In 1995, the IRS said Earl owed $120,000 for back taxes. In 1996, the IRS upped that by $10,000.

Earl satisfied those tax debts in 2001, but only after borrowing about $290,000, mostly against his house, according to property records.

Earl has incurred such debt despite a substantial income. In addition to his public-defense work, he has had paying clients, although he has been less than forthcoming about that side of his practice.

In a 1995 letter to county commissioners, Earl wrote that in nine years doing public-defense work, he had devoted "100%" of his "time and energy to Superior Court indigent defense."

And in a 2001 deposition, he said that he had only "a handful of retained cases" between 1996 and 2000, and had spent "probably 99 percent of the time in indigent criminal defense."

But financial records obtained by the state bar show payments from scores of private clients to Earl, including two made on the very day he wrote the letter to the commissioners.

"If you're asking me if the hundred percent is correct, no, not a hundred percent," Earl told the bar when asked about his claim of undivided devotion to public defense.

The financial records obtained by the bar are incomplete, and provide only baseline figures for Earl's income from paying clients.

But, when tallied, the payments noted in those records show that in 1997, Earl made at least $52,000 from private clients.

In 1998, he made at least $43,000 from private clients, the records show.

Both years, he also was paid $156,000 for public-defense work.

The median salary in 2001 for a lawyer in rural Eastern Washington was $52,500.

State bar says Earl part of a system that invites abuse

Last May, a hearing was held in Grant County on the bar's charges that Earl had asked indigent defendants or their relatives to pay for services meant to be free.

A sister of one of Earl's court-appointed clients said she emptied her savings account and borrowed from an aunt to pay Earl $3,000. "You know, I have worked all my life, since I was 16," she testified.

Bar hearing officer Kenneth Fielding concluded that Earl accepted private fees in three court-appointed cases. Calling it "an act of corruption," Fielding recommended disbarment.

Earl committed misconduct in five other cases — for example, charging unreasonable fees to private clients — that warranted sanctions ranging from reprimands to disbarment, Fielding said.

But Fielding extended his criticism beyond Earl to the contract system he worked in. Grant County "has adopted a system in which the potential for conflict and abuse is higher than need be," Fielding wrote. Earl "helped to create that system, and has voluntarily undertaken to practice in that system."

By words and conduct, Earl conveyed the message that as a court-appointed lawyer he "did not provide the same sort of defense that a client might receive if they could retain counsel," Fielding wrote.

This conduct included his excessive caseload "and the minimal time spent with clients who were asserting their innocence on very serious charges."

Earl's clients, Fielding wrote, lost "confidence and faith in the public defender system."

Earl's license suspended; attorneys pressed into service

In February, Grant County's elected prosecutor and all three Superior Court judges asked the Washington Supreme Court to let Earl keep his license while deciding whether to disbar him. Earl's continuing practice "would be greatly in the public interest," the judges wrote.

Earl wrote on his own behalf, saying he is an Eagle Scout and has served "the indigent community faithfully, earnestly and to the best of my ability."

The pleas were rebuffed. On Feb. 11, the Supreme Court suspended Earl's license pending a decision on disbarment. And on Feb. 18, Grant County terminated its public-defense contract with Earl.

Those actions precipitated a spectacular cascade of problems for Earl, other lawyers, the Grant County courts and, likely, more defendants.

Even as Earl was stripped of his income, the bar has asked him to pay $16,500 in restitution to five former clients, and $28,419.15 to the bar itself to cover the cost of proceedings against him.

A private investigator has filed a claim with Grant County saying Earl failed to pay him about $6,400 for work in a public-defender case.

At least two of Earl's subcontracting attorneys say Earl didn't pay them for the cases they handled in the first half of February.

Earl's suspension means his staggering load of court-appointed cases must be reassigned, and that he will no longer be available to take new cases.

Last month, the Superior Court judges adopted the equivalent of a military draft. In a March 12 memo, presiding judge Evan Sperline notified 49 Grant County attorneys that they would be tapped for public-defense work.

"(Y)our telling us to 'go fly a kite' would be within the expected reactions to this approach," Sperline wrote to the attorneys. "Unfortunately, we have found no reasonable alternative."

Some of the lawyers have experience in criminal defense. Others have none.

To compensate, the judges plan to give less-demanding cases to those attorneys with minimal experience, Sperline said.

What they will be paid is unclear. The judges are trying to determine an average hourly rate for Grant County attorneys. The pay for court-appointed work will likely be somewhat lower than that figure, Sperline said.

But for now, indigent defendants in Grant County could be assigned defense attorneys who lack experience in criminal law, don't want the work and don't know what they will be paid.

Ken Armstrong: 464-3730 or
Florangela Davila: 464-2916 or
Justin Mayo: 464-3669 or

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