Lawyers have fiduciary obligations to their clients; a special, high level duty of trust. Those obligations include zealous representation and protection of the client’s interests, including financial interests. Stealing from a client is in our view a “zero tolerance” offense.
When lawyers violate this extraordinary duty of trust, the crime against the client and society is especially serious and deserving of punishment, though we must always welcome redemption thereafter.
Two recent defalcations are illustrative.
Federal district court Judge Alvin Thompson sentenced Michael J. Daly, a lawyer who stole about $50,000 in money and jewelry from estates, to 18 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release and a fine of $15,000. Then-U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut David Fein said: “The bankruptcy system depends on the integrity of its trustees and practitioners. This prosecution and today’s sentence show that misconduct by those entrusted to act honestly and honorably will not be tolerated.” Fein and Thompson had it right. Incarcerating lawyers, even for short periods, when they steal from clients is the type of public punishment that the crime almost always deserves.
About the same time of the Daly sentencing, another crime surfaced. A pre-eminent member of the Connecticut bar for nearly half a century, Benson “Ben” A. Snaider, 76, of New Haven, served his clients well. His knowledge of eminent domain law is widely recognized. But something happened. He called it “human frailty.” In 2005 he stole about $800,000 from a client in Stamford. Snaider received compensation for a client in an eminent domain case and then, rather than disbursing it to the client, he spent it. He was found guilty of first degree larceny in April 2012 and entered into a plea deal engineered by his criminal defense lawyer and the Stamford State’s Attorney by which he was sentenced to five years in jail suspended. He is presently serving five years’ probation.
After Snaider’s Stamford sentencing, it was discovered that in 2007 he sued the city of Shelton on behalf of a client, received $175,000 in the eminent domain case, told his client it was in a trust account, and stole it. He recently received an eight-year sentence, suspended after two years, and five years of probation. He must make restitution.
We punish the guilty for purposes of specific and general deterrence and for retribution, but we also believe in redemption. Snaider continues to post commentary to his blog www.condemnation-ct.com in service to the public, bar and bench. Perhaps that will be part of his redemption. At the time of the Stamford prosecution, he surrendered his license for five years. The state disciplinary counsel says “a 12-year suspension or disbarment is appropriate” and the office will make another presentment. Almost certainly Snaider will never practice law again. Given his age and the sentence, time has run out for him. His punishment will deter others who might otherwise succumb to “human frailty.” That in itself, serving his time and being an example for others, is redemptive.
We believe in zero tolerance for theft from clients, certain and severe public punishment typically including some jail time for such crimes even when committed by highly-regarded members of the bar, and that there is good in most lawyers who do bad things and those lawyers can redeem themselves in many ways.•