The Indiana State Bar Association’s announcement that it will distribute $100,000 among 24 victims of former attorney and convicted fraudster William Conour is a modest but meaningful gesture from the legal community, attorneys involved with the decision say.
“It’s not all about the money all the time,” said Deputy Attorney General Thomas Irons, who chairs the ISBA Clients’ Financial Assistance Fund Committee. “Sometimes it’s about knowing someone is there to be with them and hear them and help in any way we can. We figured it was the right thing to do, given the situation.”
The ISBA Board of Governors approved a special dispensation for Conour’s victims, allowing the CFAF to exceed the fund’s award cap of $50,000 per attorney. The fund, established more than 50 years ago, provides relief for clients who have suffered a monetary loss as a result of dishonest acts of an Indiana lawyer acting in a legal or fiduciary capacity.
The fund receives $2 from every ISBA member’s dues, raising about $25,000 annually, Irons said. Since the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the ISBA fund has paid out close to $295,000. This figure does not include any payouts during the current fiscal year, which includes the $100,000 for Conour victims.
Conour, 67, is serving a 10-year wire fraud sentence at the Morgantown, West Virginia, federal correctional institution. He was ordered to pay restitution of more than $6.7 million to more than 30 former clients from whom he stole money from settlements he negotiated for them in personal injury and wrongful death cases.
“Given the magnitude of claimed losses by so many vulnerable clients,” Irons said, “and the severe nature and extent of Conour’s dishonesty, the ISBA determined that an exception should be made in this case.”
Of the two-dozen former Conour clients who submitted claims to the CFAF, all but two will receive payouts of $4,322.77, Irons said, noting the payments will not affect the consideration or payment of any pending claims from the fund in cases involving other attorneys.
‘Do some good’
State bar president Jeff Hawkins said the bar followed the same procedures for Conour victims who applied to the fund as it does for any applicant. It would have been easy for the fund to be exhausted on these claims, he said, but the bar acted in a manner that paid as much to victims as possible while sustaining the fund for the future.
“We want our members to understand what’s going on with their funds,” Hawkins said. “Every lawyer in the state probably knows about this case, and it’s an opportunity to show lawyers what their association is doing, and we’ve got an opportunity to do some good stuff here.”
Indianapolis attorney James R. Fisher represents some Conour victims and is “delighted” with the bar’s assistance.
“I think it’s embarrassing to all of us because of what he did to his clients,” Fisher said. “Anything the legal profession can do to help is positive.”
Nevertheless, the ISBA’s contribution is a drop in the bucket compared with the losses victims suffered, with little hope at this point for substantial recoveries.
Laura Briggs, clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, said the amount of paid restitution is not public information. Based on public disclosures to date of proceeds from an auction of Conour assets and contributions to the restitution fund from various entities, the fund should have collected at least $606,000, or about 9 percent of the amount Conour owes his swindled clients.
Briggs said the $100,000 paid from the ISBA fund will not count against the court’s restitution order, which is binding only on Conour.
Seeking other means of victim compensation, Fisher has asserted a claim on behalf of clients who intervened in a federal suit that a creditor filed against Conour for his default on a $600,000 line of credit. “We have not given up on that,” he said, though he acknowledged there appear to be few avenues of possible recovery remaining for victims.
“I certainly don’t see anything on the horizon,” Fisher said.
As prospects for possible recovery for victims dim, officials responsible for attorney oversight continue to refuse to disclose when the state received the first complaints against Conour.
The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission filed a verified complaint – the first public notice of discipline proceedings against Conour – in May 2012 after he was charged with wire fraud. But the commission had complaints against him almost four years earlier, according to a former Conour law partner who spoke to Indiana Lawyer in the past.
Commission Executive Secretary G. Michael Witte has denied repeated IL requests to disclose when the commission received complaints against Conour, or how many were received on behalf of Conour’s victims named in the federal restitution order. Witte said Rules of Professional Conduct treating complaints against attorneys as confidential prevent the disclosure of such information.
A formal IL request for only the date and number of complaints against Conour on behalf of victims identified in the federal restitution order also was denied by Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt. Britt reconsidered his decision on a public interest basis before ultimately affirming his initial denial.
Britt wrote that he was sympathetic that confidentiality rules might hinder an assessment of the commission’s accountability. “Unfortunately, I think my hands are tied as far as compelling any access to information,” he wrote in an email.
“I see how there is little check on what they do” before a public verified complaint against an attorney is issued, Britt wrote of the Disciplinary Commission.
Chief Justice Loretta Rush, through Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan, also declined to provide the information. Dolan also said rules of confidentiality would prohibit releasing even the date or number of grievances received on behalf of Conour’s victims.
“Confidentiality rules prevent the Court and the Commission from stating what, if any, grievances it receives – regardless if charges are filed against an attorney,” Dolan wrote in response to IL inquiries.
“The Supreme Court has sole jurisdiction over attorney disciplinary matters and it considers this one of its most important duties,” Dolan wrote. “Attorneys are bound by the Professional Rules of Conduct and the Court has tasked the responsibility for investigating attorney misconduct with the Commission.
“... When the Commission and the Court believe misconduct has occurred, action is taken. One avenue to ensure attorneys and the public at-large come forward with information alleging misconduct is to keep those allegations confidential until (and if) there is a verified complaint,” she wrote.•