AN UNEASY F. DANIEL GRAF stepped forward to address the state Supreme Court in Olympia the other day. Attorneys prize the opportunity to appear at the hallowed Temple of Justice, but Graf, a bar member since 1988, wasn't thrilled to be there. The court was deciding whether he should be suspended from the practice of law. At issue was a conflict with his female clients. Graf keeps having sex with them.
That distressed the Washington State Bar Association, not to mention Graf's wife and his girlfriend.
"He's just not controllable," said Jonathan Burke, representing the bar at the June 26 disciplinary hearing before the full court. "There is no effective means, short of suspension, to protect the public." He has had affairs with at least four clients since he was a legal intern 15 years ago. The bar says he continued to have relations with others after he was charged with ethics violations, prompting the bar to move for an immediate "interim suspension" while the investigation continues.
Graf, who works out of his home in Olympia, conceded he has a problem and was temporarily suspended later that day. But he wasn't apologetic and planned to fight the charges. "I do not say my conduct is exemplary," he allowed. "I am in counseling for it at this time," and he has been for seven years. He faces a long menu of possible discipline, including censure, suspension, and disbarmentthe loss of his license to practice law. If it is the latter, he will set a record. In fact, every attorney who is disbarred in Washington the rest of this year will set a record.
Last year and the year before, 20 attorneys each year lost their licenses in Washington, the most disbarments ever recorded, based on statistics dating to 1981. This year, in just the first six months, a record 21 have already been disbarred. Bar officials are scratching their heads trying to explain it. Are there more offending attorneys, or, as it is with some of their clients crowding state prisons, just more getting caught?
ONE ANSWER, SAYS STATE bar spokesperson Judy Berrett, is that "we're finally clearing out our backlog."
Bar complaint cases began piling up in the early 1990s, and it wasn't until staffing was increased and, more recently, additional lawyers volunteered their time to help discipline fellow lawyers that the numbers were winnowed. "Last year we had 150 public proceedings," says Berrett of disciplinary cases, some of which, like Graf's, require review by the Supreme Court. "That's a high number, as were the 45 disciplinary hearings we held. What we're seeing now [in record disbarments] is the result of working through all that."
If all this comes as good news to some, especially those who appreciate a good lawyer joke, it's even better news to the clients who felt victimized, first by their legal dilemmas and then again by their legal counsels. Recent examples, from Seattle to the state's smallest burgs, include an attorney who urged his client to work at an escort service to pay her legal tab; an attorney who used his car to pay for drugs, then reported it stolen; another who misled a client to think he'd been divorced but wasn't when he remarried; and a legion of lawyers who failed to appear for court dates, took cases while suspended, misused client funds, and closed their offices in the middle of the night and disappeared.
DISCIPLINE ENCOMPASSES both sides of the court. Disbarred last fall was defender Richard Tassano, executive director of the Washington Appellate Project from 1994 until 2001. For his personal benefit, the bar says, he spent $22,000 of the project's money that should have been used to represent indigent criminal defendants on appeal. Conversely, among those disbarred this year was Charles O. Bonet, a Thurston County prosecutor who made a deal with a witness not to testify in a case, then told a judge, "We have made no offer or inducement to this witness."
Bar officials are still shaking their heads over the recent disbarment of Robert C. Lyons, a Spanaway attorney who, besides misusing client funds, solicited sexual favors as payment for his legal services. In one instance, according to a bar disciplinary record, Lyons met a client at her home, where he "discussed his personal problems, pretended to be emotional, and asked the client to give him a hug. Mr. Lyons then convinced the client to move to her bedroom, undressed her, and had sexual relations with her, despite her objections." The woman, with an apparent drug problem, wanted Lyon's help in a child-custody case. His conduct, the bar says, caused the client to relapse in her treatment, leading to placement of her children with a relative.
Despite what the public might think, says bar spokesperson Berrett, the association is striving to discipline offending attorneys. "Nobody wants bad lawyers out there practicing law and harming the public," she says, "so we view this very much as consumer protection."
THAT'S CERTAINLY HOW the bar saw its Supreme Court case against the law-and-sex practices of Graf. "The problem with the respondent in this case is he just doesn't have control. . . . Whether you call it sex addiction or whether he's a sociopath or narcissistic, he simply can't control himself," said Burke, the bar's attorney. Graf puts those who come to his door at risk, he added.
Before the court handed down its decision, Graf offered up a compromise for them to consider: Let him continue to practice if he accepts only male clients. "I have all along agreed that the fact of the matter is simply resolved by me not accepting female clients," he told the court.
Well, one of the jurists asked, won't there still be women one way or another around the office?
"Most females, ma'am, are able to say no thank you!" to sex, shot back Graf, who was representing himself. He defiantly eyed the panel of nine. Five are women. It was probably a little late to hire an attorney.
Bar disciplinary notices can be viewed and complaint information accessed at www.wsba.org.