MAURICIO CELIS: He’s serving 10 years’ probation for falsely posing as a lawyer in Texas. (AP / Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Michael Zamora)
Mauricio Celis appeared in a Corpus Christi courtroom on April 22 to begin serving 10 years’ probation on 14 counts of falsely presenting himself as a lawyer. At the time of his trial, a local district attorney nicknamed him the “biggest con man in the history of Nueces County.”
Less than a week later, his lawyers were back in court. Only this time, they were in Chicago fighting to preserve Celis’ seat in an executive LL.M. program offered jointly by Northwestern University School of Law and the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid. Administrators had expelled Celis when they learned of his criminal history.
How a notorious scam artist landed in a prestigious law school’s LL.M. program is a curious case, in part because Celis’ legal tribulations have garnered extensive coverage in the Texas news media. Texas Monthly featured him in a 2010 story headlined “The Great Pretender.” The magazine recounted his years posing as a high-flying plaintiffs lawyer who signed up personal injury clients before passing them along to other attorneys and collecting millions in referral fees. But his success was built on a foundation of lies: Celis had never graduated from college, much less attended law school.
Had Northwestern known any of this, it would not have admitted him, the law school said in a court document. Celis failed to disclose his convictions in both his application and a subsequent interview with a program administrator, the school claimed. “His apparent flagrant disregard for legal and ethical conduct makes him an undesirable candidate for an LL.M. degree,” the school wrote.
“Moreover, the fact that Celis chose to hide this information strongly suggests a lack of judgment and integrity which are essential qualities in the legal field,” the school continued. “As someone who represented himself to be a practicing attorney in his interview, and thus presumably knowledgeable about ethical obligations in the profession, Celis certainly should have realized that the information was pertinent to his application for an LL.M. degree from Northwestern.”
Northwestern law dean Daniel Rodriguez declined to comment, citing Celis’ pending lawsuit, but law schools typically rely on applicants to disclose any criminal convictions. A criminal background check generally comes later, when graduates apply to practice.
Posing as a lawyer had worked out well for Celis before — that is, until a rival plaintiffs attorney in South Texas exposed his fraud. By the time of his 2007 arrest, the then-36-year-old Celis owned a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley and a BMW, Texas Monthly reported, and was well known in legal and business circles. The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi testified as a character witness during his first trial, recounting his generosity and good works. Local reporters follow every twist and turn in the numerous cases against him.
In addition to his 2009 conviction for falsely holding himself out as a lawyer, Celis was convicted of impersonating a police officer in 2007; the Texas Court of Appeals upheld that conviction last year. He is awaiting trial on additional charges of theft and money laundering.
None of which prevented Celis from applying to Northwestern’s executive LL.M. program in summer 2012 for a spot in the class of 2014. Unlike traditional LL.M. programs intended only for licensed attorneys, the joint executive master’s degree is open to nonlawyers. Students complete three two-week sessions in Chicago and Madrid over eight months.
Celis needed to complete the program to accept a teaching position at a law school in Mexico, according to his complaint. Neither that job nor his criminal convictions came up on his application or during a 35-minute telephone interview with a program administrator, the school claimed. Moreover, it said, Celis told his interviewer that he was a lawyer in Mexico.
Dykema Gossett member Rosa Tumialán, one of four attorneys on Celis’ legal team, did not dispute that her client never disclosed his convictions, but said the application didn’t specifically require him to do so. “If you look at Northwestern’s website, you will see that there are many different applications and some have certain questions about convictions,” she said. “This particular application didn’t have that question. If Northwestern was going to make a lack of a criminal history a condition for acceptance, it should have included that question.”
The law school pointed to an enrollment contract signed by Celis that says students can be expelled for any “materially false or misleading statement, whether by act or omission, during the admissions process.”
Northwestern didn’t discover Celis’ criminal history until late in 2013 or early 2014 — court records don’t specify how — and gave him several opportunities to explain the situation. His explanations did not sway administrators, who informed him on April 23 that he was expelled.
Celis filed suit against Northwestern and Instituto de Empresa on April 25, claiming breach of contract. Attorneys for the two parties assembled before Judge Sara Ellis of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on April 28 for a hearing on Celis’ emergency motion for a temporary restraining order that would allow him to attend a class scheduled for the following day. (The Texas judge allowed to Celis to travel outside the state and country during his probation.) Ellis denied the motion.
That decision in all likelihood means Celis won’t graduate from the program as he’d hoped on May 16. He will be out of pocket for $76,000 in tuition and related fees unless he can return, his suit claims. He seeks that same amount in damages and attorney fees.
“It’s a setback, but I don’t think the case is over,” Tumialán said of the ruling.
Northwestern, for its part, wouldn’t welcome Celis back to campus.
“Northwestern clearly has a legitimate interest in ensuring that the lawyers to whom it confers law degrees are honest and ethical in their profession,” the school’s motion reads. “Thus, this court should not interfere with Northwestern’s academic decision to revoke Celis’ admission.”