When a 35-year-old Stamford lawyer pleaded guilty to taking part in an extensive mortgage fraud scheme back in February, the state wanted to immediately suspend his law license.
But it’s been three months since Christopher Brecciano entered his plea, and disciplinary officials have yet to take any action. That’s because they are required to wait until the lawyer is sentenced in federal court. Brecciano is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.
The current Practice Book rules do not allow the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel to move for a suspension until after the lawyer is sentenced for a conviction, Chief Disciplinary Counsel Patricia King said. She’s seeking a change to the practice book rules so attorneys convicted of financial crimes and other felonies will be banned from practice sooner.
“It’s not usually a big deal in state court, because a sentencing is typically done four weeks or six weeks after a conviction,” King said. “But in federal court, it can take a lot longer.”
King’s office is seeking a change to the Practice Book that would put the state more in line with federal practice rules. A licence to practice law in federal court is immediately suspended upon a plea or conviction for a crime involving dishonesty, such as fraud or grand theft.
Another rule change would specify that whenever a lawyer is convicted of misappropriating funds, the minimum discipline will be disbarment for a minimum of 12 years. King said the language is intended to make clear that “12 years is the bottom of the range, not the top.”
Other proposed rule changes include clarifying that attorneys who represent medical marijuana growers and dispensaries in the state, which recently approved such business, shall not face disciplinary action as long as they don’t advice clients to break the law. Yet another change would add elder law to the list of practice areas in which an attorney could claim to be a “specialist.”
The Rules Committee will have a public hearing on the rule changes May 18. The next step will be a vote at the annual meeting of judges in June.
Under current rules, once a lawyer is sentenced for a crime the state can issue an interim suspension, which remains in affect until a disciplinary hearing is held. The time of the suspension, ranging from a year to lifetime, is decided following a hearing in Superior Court.
Although it does not happen “all the time,” King said the chance that a lawyer could continue to practice law after being found guilty of “a serious crime” is a serious loophole that should be closed. “It does not help the public opinion of the administration of justice in the state,” she said.
Brecciano’s case offered a good example of how the current rule works. Brecciano accepted a plea bargain on Feb. 12 in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport for conspiring to defraud financial institutions in a scheme that involved dozens of Fairfield County properties. Through his scheme, lenders suffered losses of more than $7 million, prosecutors said. After his plea, Brecciano was technically still licensed to practice law in the state.
If the lawyer is licensed to practice in federal court, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel can wait until it gets notice that the federal court has suspended the lawyer, and then file for an interim suspension until sentencing. But state judges can and have denied those requests, King said, citing the Practice Book Rules.
A similar rule change has been proposed for Connecticut lawyers who are convicted of crimes in other states, requiring an immediate interim suspension at the time of conviction. For the purposes of the proposed rule change, a conviction would include entering a plea of guilty of nolo contendere, or being found guilty by a judge or jury. The rule would specify that a law license would be suspended immediately, regardless of whether an appeal is pending.
King said rule changes are important in ensuring the public trust of the state’s courts. “Public confidence in the judicial system will be enhanced by the interim suspension immediately following a finding of guilt,” King said.