For some, free counsel comes at a high cost
Sunday, April 4, 2004
Page 5 of 5
Romero says Tom Earl paid him about $93,000 a year to handle 20 percent of the cases.
But in 2002, Romero received 29 percent of the appointments, according to figures that Earl provided to the county. And in the first quarter of 2003, Romero's share shot up to 32 percent, according to another report from Earl.
"I was appalled, man," he said. "This is just outrageous."
THE BAR STEPS IN
The state bar, which polices lawyers, received a complaint concerning Romero's assault conviction in 1994. More than two years later, it issued a private admonition.
In 1996, McKean, Romero's first employer in Grant County, told the bar he believed that Romero and fellow public defender Tom Earl were hitting up indigent defendants for money. The bar tabled an investigation pending the resolution of a related lawsuit. In early 2000, after the lawsuit was thrown out, the bar said too much time had passed for it to pick up the investigation.
In spring 2000, new allegations surfaced that Romero was demanding money in exchange for public defense. This time, the bar investigated.
CASHING IN ON TROUBLE
If Romero is eventually disbarred, it probably won't be due to accusations of legal ineptitude.
It could be over a $726 check.
In summer 2000, despite nearly six years of steady public-defense work as well as paying private clients, Romero's finances were a mess: His savings account had dwindled to 3 cents and his checking account was overdrawn, according to court records.
He later told the state bar that money was never his priority: "I guess my focus was on doing what I do best, and that is practice law."
That same summer, Romero represented a private defendant in a misdemeanor case. The defendant was ordered to pay $726 for court costs and fees, and wrote a check to Romero for that amount.
Instead of signing the check over to the court, Romero cashed it.
Three months later, a county clerk noticed the missing payment, and asked Romero for the money.
Day after day, Romero offered a different excuse, according to the clerk's notes and subsequent testimony before the bar: You don't take checks, he said. The check's on my desk, but I forgot it, he said. I'll bring it tomorrow, he said, adding, Scout's honor.
Eleven days after the clerk first asked for the money, Romero paid, in cash. But by then, the clerk had reported him to the bar.
In November 2002, in Moses Lake, the bar presented its evidence against Romero, alleging sweeping misconduct. Hearing officer James Danielson, a Wenatchee attorney, concluded that in three cases, Romero had improperly asked for, or received, money from court-appointed clients or their relatives.
In one case, Romero was accused of hustling an indigent defendant's mother. She said she borrowed between $300 and $800 from her sister to give to Romero. Romero denies the charges, but Danielson recommended that his law license be suspended.
Danielson also found that Romero failed to file timely federal income-tax returns for four straight years; an IRS lien filed two years ago shows he owes back taxes of about $140,000. "I just spaced it out, man," Romero said in an interview. Danielson again recommended suspension of his license.
And Danielson cited other misconduct for example, neglecting clients or giving bad advice that he said warranted reprimands or suspensions.
But when it came to the $726 check, Danielson said, Romero had committed theft.
The recommended sanction: disbarment.
AWAITING JUDGMENT DAY
In Washington, only the state Supreme Court has the authority to remove a lawyer's license. When the state bar asked for Romero's license, the court received testimonials from 21 people defending him. Many were prosecutors and police from Grant County Romero's adversaries in the justice system.
Romero is a man of "deep humanity and integrity," wrote Knodell, the Grant County prosecutor. "I can assure you, on the basis of my knowledge of the man, his continued practice of law will in no way be detrimental to the integrity of the standing of the bar and the administration of justice or contrary to the public interest."
Last May, the state Supreme Court ruled that Romero could keep his license pending its decision on disbarment.
But in Grant County, trial-court judges had already asked Tom Earl to start reassigning Romero's cases. Romero's last day as a public defender was May 19, 2003. For much of the next year, he worked as a domestic-violence counselor despite his own past conviction for domestic violence and continued to represent defendants as a private attorney.
Then last month, Romero was again hired into the county court system, this time by the prosecution. He now works for Knodell as a victim-witness coordinator.
In the meantime, Earl reassigned some of Romero's public-defense cases to himself even though he, too, is facing possible disbarment.
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