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In an effort to curb incidents of lawyer theft that have plagued the legal profession over the last decade, Connecticut judicial and bar leaders are proposing the creation of an assistance program for attorneys with substance abuse, gambling and mental health problems. Backers of the plan appeared before the Connecticut Legislature’s Judiciary Committee Feb. 5 seeking approval to fund such a program through a $10 increase to the $75 annual payments that lawyers and judges currently make to the Client Security Fund. Under a 1997 Connecticut state law, such allocations can only be used to reimburse the victims of dishonest attorneys. But Senate Bill 1058 would amend the statute so that a portion of those payments could be earmarked toward establishing an outreach program and a 24-hour hotline for lawyers suffering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol. If passed, Connecticut Superior Court judges, who have authority over the amount of the mandatory payments to the Client Security Fund, would have to approve increasing those assessments to $85 a year. Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer, who chairs the Client Security Fund Committee, said he and Chief Justice William J. Sullivan will seek the adoption of such a measure at the judges’ annual meeting in June. PROTECTING THE PUBLIC At the Judiciary Committee’s hearing last week, members of the bar and bench noted that the hike would equate to roughly the cost of two cocktails for each of the 28,000 attorneys licensed to practice in Connecticut. But by targeting the problems that prompt many lawyer-defalcators to steal from their clients, the proposed assistance program, in the long run, would more than make up for its cost, they urged. Although no study has been done in Connecticut, the American Bar Association estimates that, nationally, 20 to 25 percent of attorney discipline cases stem from lawyers’ substance abuse problems, Judge Robert L. Holzberg, president of the Connecticut Judges Association, told the Judiciary Committee. Connecticut, however, is one of only seven states in the country without a formal lawyer-assistance program, Holzberg said. “It is abundantly clear that much more needs to be done to protect the public,” maintained Windsor Locks, Conn., Probate Judge William C. Leary, a recovering alcoholic since 1976 and longtime member of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Committee. Created 20 years ago, the CBA committee operates a hotline — (860) 529-4077 — for lawyers seeking help in battling alcoholism or other substances. With an annual budget of $150,000, the proposed assistance program would allow the hotline to be staffed around the clock, Leary said in an interview. Funds, he added, also would be used to conduct educational and outreach efforts around the state as well as hiring a staff member trained to handle mental-health crises. A similar program in Massachusetts has an annual budget in excess of $400,000, he said. Palmer said $10 assessments would not be used to pay for the treatment of lawyers with substance abuse, gambling or mental-health problems. Rather, the purpose of the program, he said, would be to ensure that troubled lawyers are referred to appropriate professionals or treatment sources. Like professionals in other stressful occupations, lawyers are nearly twice as likely to develop substance abuse problems than members of the general public, according to Leary, also a partner at O’Malley, Deneen, Leary, Messina & Oswecki in Windsor Locks, Conn. REIMBURSEMENT WOES Though they universally supported the idea, some Judiciary Committee members expressed concern about the Client Security Fund’s current inability to reimburse claimants for the full amount of their losses. The fund, operated under the Judicial Branch’s auspices, was formed in 1998 in response to the overwhelming number of claims that broke a similar pre-existing fund of lesser means that relied solely on payments from CBA members. More than 225 claims totaling roughly $15 million in losses are currently pending before Palmer’s committee, many of them stemming from deceased Wallingford, Conn., attorney John A. Carrozzella’s multi-million investment scheme, which unraveled in 1995. But as of Jan. 1, the fund had only accumulated $3.6 million, Palmer said. Under a formula for distributing those funds recently approved by Palmer’s committee, fully meritorious claimants, over the next six months, will receive 75 percent of losses up to $100,000 and 10 percent of any losses in excess of that amount, according to Palmer. In addition, claimants who lost money due to investment-related services that usually aren’t covered by the fund but are deemed by the committee to have occurred as a direct result of an attorney-client relationship also are eligible for reimbursement, he said. Those payments, Palmer added, will be made at a rate of 25 percent of losses up to $100,000 and 5 percent of any losses in excess of that amount. The committee, he noted, also plans to keep claims open in the hopes that it will be able to more fully reimburse such claimants in the future. Palmer said lawmakers likely wouldn’t support a proposal calling for the assistance program to be funded out of the $450 occupation tax that Connecticut collects from each lawyer. Such revenue goes into the state’s General Fund, which the Legislature is usually reluctant to earmark toward specific programs, he said. Because the assistance program, as envisioned, will reduce the number of claims to the Client Security Fund, proponents believe it to be the more appropriate funding source, Palmer explained.

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