Five years ago, Washington lawyer Lily Mazahery represented two prominent Iranian political dissidents seeking asylum in the United States. They’ve accused Mazahery of misconduct, putting her future as an attorney on the line.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals will decide whether Mazahery can keep practicing. Earlier this month, the Board on Professional Responsibility, which hears D.C. Bar disciplinary cases, recommended disbarment. Mazahery is fighting the board’s findings.
The Office of Bar Counsel accused Mazahery in 2010 of a long list of ethics violations, including doing shoddy legal work, revealing client confidences and dishonesty. Her former clients, Ahmad Batebi and Mahdi Kianoosh Sanjari Baf, accused her of threatening them with deportation unless they followed her instructions.
Mazahery denied any wrongdoing. “[T]he uncontroverted evidence is that Ms. Mazahery provided competent, skillful and careful representation,” her attorney, James Maloney of Maloney & Mohsen, argued in a brief. Mazahery and Maloney declined to comment.
Assistant Bar Counsel Becky Neal wrote in her brief that Mazahery was guilty of “flagrant and pervasive dishonesty.” Bar counsel also charged Mazahery with mishandling money she helped raise to aid a woman sentenced to death in Iran and making a false claim about a charge on her bank account — allegations Mazahery denied. Neal declined to comment.
Sanjari and Batebi ultimately were granted asylum, but the board said in its October 4 report that that didn’t mean Mazahery was off the hook. “Respondent’s dishonesty and incompetence, coupled with her lack of appreciation for the severity of her misconduct, causes concern that she would be poised to commit similar violations in the future,” the board found, adding that disbarment would send a message to other members of the bar.
Mazahery’s law practice focuses on humanitarian causes. She founded the Legal Rights Institute, representing political dissidents and victims of human rights violations. Before striking out on her own in 2002, she was an associate at Jones Day. She had no previous disciplinary history.
Beginning in late 2007, according to case filings, Mazahery began working with Sanjari, a former political prisoner in Iran. Batebi became a client the following year as he escaped from nearly a decade of imprisonment in Iran. She took on both clients pro bono.
The charges against Mazahery included failing to keep her clients informed of what was going on in their cases; filing incomplete information to government agencies on their behalf; and revealing confidential information about financial and other sensitive matters. Bar counsel also charged her with engaging in a sexual relationship with Sanjari that created a conflict of interest.
DEFENDING HER WORK
Mazahery defended her work, noting she successfully worked to bring Sanjari and Batebi to the United States. She said many of her actions at issue were irrelevant — that her relationship with Sanjari didn’t affect her representation — unintentional or supported by the D.C. Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct.
The Ad Hoc Hearing Committee, which hears testimony before making a report to the Board on Professional Responsibility, recommended disbarment in September 2011. One committee member dissented, disagreeing that Mazahery had committed criminal offenses and recommending a three-year suspension. Mazahery was never criminally charged, but bar counsel charged her with criminal conduct including forgery and larceny.
Mazahery unsuccessfully urged the Board on Professional Responsibility to dismiss the charges or consider suspension if it found she violated certain ethics rules. She notified the appeals court on October 11 that she was challenging the board’s recommendation that she be disbarred.
Arthur Burger, head of Jackson & Campbell’s professional responsibility practice, said it’s unlikely the appeals court would give much weight to the dissenting opinion. The court gives “a lot of weight to the [Board on Professional Responsibility]‘s recommendation on sanctions,” he said.
A hearing before the appeals court has not been scheduled.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.