Former Connecticut lawyer Paul Ngobeni is accused of stealing thousands of dollars from 16 clients and later fleeing to South Africa. In some cases, he represented people after he had been disbarred.
Now an advisor to the South African government, Ngobeni remains a fugitive from justice in Connecticut. Authorities thought they had him once. He was apprehended during a return visit to the state. But one of the charges against him, for unauthorized practice of law, was dropped by a Superior Court judge. He had no choice. The current state UPL statute covers only people who have never been licensed to practice in the first place. (Ngobeni bolted back to South Africa and has never faced the remaining larceny charges.)
With such cases in mind, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and Connecticut Bar Association leaders have again ramped up efforts to persuade lawmakers to approve a measure that would make it a felony for anyone to practice law in Connecticut without authorization to do so, including suspended or disbarred attorneys.
"We’ve had cases where lawyers have been disbarred and continued representing people in court and we couldn’t prosecute them. It’s not a crime," said Kane. "The Judicial Branch can’t do anything more to them. These are people who would not be readmitted anyway and just continue to hold themselves out as lawyers and represent clients."
Unauthorized practice is currently a class B misdemeanor, which typically results in a $250 fine and two or three months of actual time behind bars, according to Kane. "If we’re talking about [the size of the] fine, that probably was good back in 1920, but times have changed a lot," Kane said at a recent public hearing.
One proposal before the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee would make the crime a class D felony, punishable by between one and five years in prison. If the person has a valid license to practice law in another jurisdiction, the charge would only be a misdemeanor.
Kane said a new UPL law would put Connecticut more in line with other states. He said New York recently passed a law making unauthorized practice a felony. That law will go into effect Nov. 1.
Carl Porto Sr., of Parrett, Porto, Parese & Colwell in Hamden, is chair of the CBA’s Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee. He noted that the group has tried six times now to get such a bill passed. "We believe that if someone violates the unauthorized practice of law statute, there should be some penalty involved in that," said Porto. "It’s hard to motivate law enforcement authorities when the penalty is so minimal."
Burton B. "Burt" Cohen, a Murtha Cullina partner who submitted testimony to lawmakers on behalf of the CBA, emphasized that lawyers should not be worried about being arrested on technicalities.
"For instance, a lawyer who neglects to pay the occupational tax on attorneys will not be in violation of the law," said Cohen. "If, however, a person provides legal services without being admitted to practice in Connecticut, unless authorized pursuant to a court order or statute, that person will be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law."
Cohen noted that immigrants seem to be especially targeted by phony lawyers. "The victims can often be the poor and immigrants and the consequences of erroneous or unprofessional advice can be devastating," he said.
One example is a 2007 case in Stamford Superior Court in which a Norwalk man, Ismet Idrizaj, was charged with drunken driving charge. They man appearing as his attorney identified himself as Harold Weber, of New York. Authorities said he was actually Howard Seidler, 62, of Brooklyn.
Idrizaj was ultimately convicted by a jury. Stamford State’s Attorney David Cohen said that, during the trial, Seidler "had no idea what he was doing, which raised some suspicions on the part of the prosecutor."
The prosecutor investigated and discovered the man’s true identity. Seidler had reportedly been passing himself off as a lawyer all across the country.
Authorities said that before sentencing, Seidler told Idrizaj that he needed another $10,000 to give to the judge so as to ensure he didn’t get any jail time with his conviction. The man paid the money.
When Seidler arrived to the sentencing hearing, he was arrested. He was ultimately convicted of larceny and unauthorized practice of law and sentenced to two years in prison. David Cohen, who hopes the latest bill proposal passes, said authorities were fortunate they could charge Seiler with larceny.
"If it was a situation where the victim hadn’t cooperated or there had not been enormous fees charged, there would be very little we could charge him with," said Cohen.
Mark Dubois, the former chief disciplinary counsel in Connecticut, agreed that immigrants are particularly vulnerable. He explained that in the Hispanic culture, lawyers are called notarios. In America, some people obtain a notary license and then offer legal services to immigrants who think they are really lawyers.
"People give them thousands and thousands of dollars to do legal work," Dubois said.
In his time as disciplinary counsel, Dubois investigated or prosecuted 450 cases of the unauthorized practice of law. He, too, is hopeful a bill finally passes this legislative session.
In past years, he said, something has come up at the last minute to scuttle the bill. For instance, one year, he said, insurance agents were concerned the law would apply to them. "Every year at the eleventh hour, sometimes at the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, something shows up," said Dubois.
This year, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association expressed concern that the proposed law would apply to in-house counsel who review or draft contracts for their companies but who aren’t admitted in Connecticut. "We don’t intend to reach that group of people," said Kane, who has worked to try to appease their concerns during the current legislative session.
Dubois believes that if the measure is approved, it will take only a few prosecutions to scare off scam artists who prey on immigrants and others.
"The risk is so low, everybody does it," said Dubois. "State’s attorneys can’t be bothered to prosecute it [now since it's just a misdemeanor], but the harm is very real and damaging to a lot of people. One of these days, we’ll finally get some meat into the law and chase some bad actors out of the marketplace."•