Members and officers of the Marion County Bar Association say the organization has put behind it the theft and subsequent repayment of more than $10,000 by its former treasurer.
Trezanay Atkins admitted in a hearing before the Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission that she misappropriated money during her tenure as treasurer of the Indianapolis-based bar whose mission is the professional development of minority attorneys. The commission asserts that from October 2011 through December 2012, Atkins converted to her personal use 53 bar association checks she wrote ranging from $15 to $500, totaling $10,373.
“I was in personal financial distress,” Atkins testified at a hearing this year when asked why one check was written for an unusually specific amount – $456.12. “I didn’t have any money to take care of even my kids … and so the reason why it is for an odd number is because those were bills that I needed to pay in my house,” she stated.
In March 2013, Atkins self-reported the misappropriations to then-MCBA President TaKeena Thompson, who said the organization moved swiftly, removing Atkins from the treasurer position. Thompson, an associate at Cohen & Malad LLP, said that within a week of the disclosure, members were notified of the situation, and Atkins promptly returned the money. Atkins said she received a loan to repay most of the money.
“We told (members) that we apologized … we didn’t try to hide it,” Thompson said, noting the association also quickly changed its banking procedures, requiring multiple signatures on checks, for instance. She said of members, “I think they were confident in our board and that we would do everything that we could to make sure this never happened again.”
The association filed a grievance against Atkins that served as the basis of the disciplinary complaint against her, and the MCBA board voted to refer the case to the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, though no charges had been filed as of May 31.
Atkins, who was admitted to practice in 2009, told Indiana Lawyer she is resigned to the likelihood that she may temporarily lose her law license. She admitted in her disciplinary action that she committed acts amounting to Class A misdemeanor conversion. The month she became treasurer, she sent board members an email that the organization was “hemorrhaging financially,” the record shows.
Atkins told IL the MCBA’s records were in disarray when she became treasurer. Marion Superior Judge Helen Marchal, the hearing officer in Atkins’ case, found that an aggravating factor was that the MCBA was a vulnerable victim.
Marchal submitted a report to the Supreme Court in May finding Atkins violated Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4(b) and 8.4(c). Marchal recommended a one-year suspension without automatic reinstatement. The Disciplinary Commission previously urged a two-year suspension.
Along with a violation for misappropriating funds, Atkins also tried to conceal the thefts. For instance, she made notations in memo lines of checks that the money was for false purposes, and she also provided summaries to the board with incorrect balances.
In November 2012, she reported to the board that the association had a balance of just over $19,900, when the actual balance was less than $9,700, according to the disciplinary record. The ledger didn’t include the checks she’d written for herself.
Members and officers of the association said they were disheartened by the misappropriations that came as the organization had become more active than it had been for several years. It hosted a successful retirement celebration for Court of Appeals Senior Judge Carr Darden and instituted regular “coffee chats” enabling members to meet informally with local judges.
Cassandra Bentley, president of the Marion County Bar Association, said the facts in Atkins’ complaint speak for themselves: “It’s been resolved and we are moving on.
“From our end of things, we turned it over to the prosecutor’s office, and whatever they decided to do with it, that’s what they decided to do with it,” said Bentley, a law clerk for Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.
“It was an unfortunate situation and we handled it appropriately,” Bentley said. She doesn’t believe the MCBA has been damaged because of the situation.
“We’re still a functioning and valuable part of the legal community,” she said. The group plans to conduct a membership drive in September and is working on other initiatives.
MCBA past president, life member and Barnes & Thornburg LLP partner Jimmie McMillian Jr. said he wouldn’t comment on Atkins, but agreed the organization had moved on.
“It takes a lot to do it and to do it right and do it well,” he said of leading an organization that relies entirely on volunteers. But he said its mission remains vital.
“I think it’s important to have a network for lawyers, particularly lawyers of color, to get plugged in and get connected in groups they feel comfortable and welcome in,” McMillian said. It’s also important for groups like MCBA to share in the successes of members who have a commonality of purpose, he added.
McMillian was mentored by MCBA members, and he’s had the opportunity to mentor others in the organization that he indicated has nearly 200 members.
“We have the same diversity challenges in the legal community we have for years,” he said, though corporate America, courts and government see diversity in the profession as a goal. “We are better served by a diverse bar. It better represents the community we serve.”
An influential member who spoke on condition of anonymity said the organization is likely to focus on its basic mission of helping students study for the bar exam and assisting young lawyers advance in the local legal community, likely deferring any initiatives until late summer.
Atkins spoke to IL after Marchal’s report was transmitted to the Supreme Court. She said she sensed tension between younger and older MCBA members, a view some members contacted for this story shared but others did not.
Thompson, now immediate past-president, said the MCBA made strides to improve communication with members and offer more activities. She said some members had not paid dues in the past because they didn’t receive invoices, and those were the kind of issues the leadership addressed.
“We were trying to get all of our processes in order, and not everything was up to par,” Thompson said of the board under her direction. “I definitely think it was an accomplishment for the board to have as much activity as we had. We had an increase in membership and active members, and I think the board did a good job.”
In Thompson’s estimation, that includes dealing with the fallout from Atkins’ misappropriation.
“Do I think those things are being overshadowed? I don’t think so,” she said.
Atkins said she’s shutting down her law practice and isn’t accepting new clients. She hopes to keep her license active after her discipline case is concluded, but she doesn’t intend to practice. Instead, she’s turning her attention to a new enterprise, Ignis Strategic Communications, a public relations company whose Twitter page reads, “between you and the media stands Ignis. We handle crisis | reputation | strategy | press.”•