[Editor's note: This article was updated at 5:30 CST on Oct. 28.]
During his closing arguments in the sentencing hearing for disbarred Dallas plaintiffs lawyer Thomas Corea, Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Jacob Harris argued that Corea has earned a unique place in Texas legal history.
“We are of the opinion that the case of Thomas Corea—it’s the worst case of lawyer misconduct in Texas and possibly in the history of Texas,” says Harris about his final argument to Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 7 Judge Michael Snipes.
Corea pleaded guilty to three counts of misapplication of fiduciary property, says Harris, and went before Snipes for a determination of punishment. On Oct. 23 the judge sent Corea to prison for 25 years.
During the punishment hearing, Harris and another prosecutor alleged that Corea misappropriated $3.8 million from his clients, and prosecutors put on 27 witnesses to describe the damage he had done, Harris says.
But John Helms, an attorney with Dallas’ Fitzpatrick Hagood Smith & Uhl who defended Corea, says he disagrees with the amount of money lost by Corea’s former clients.
“The state’s calculation of the loss amount was roughly $3.8 million dollars. Our calculation of the loss was between $1.1 and $1.3 million,” Helms says, noting that prosecutors agreed to drop pending and future indictments resulting from Corea’s law practice in exchange for Corea’s guilty plea.
One of the state’s best witnesses was Maureen Ray, special administrative counsel for the State Bar of Texas’ Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, Harris says. She testified during the hearing “that she had never seen a lawyer misconduct this bad in the state of Texas,” Harris says.
A call seeking comment from Ray resulted in an email from Claire Mock, public affairs administrator for the chief disciplinary counsel, which reads, “Maureen has been counsel for the Client Security Fund for about 10 years. In handling Mr. Corea’s applicants, she reviewed her past files and determined that Mr. Corea had not only the highest number of applicants, but also the highest dollar figure by far.”
Ray also testified that Texas Client Security Fund—money that the Bar reserves for clients cheated by their attorneys—had never received so many claims and so many complaints about an individual lawyer, Harris says.
“They had 43 claims by the time of trial,” he notes.
If they paid out all of the claims made against Corea, not only would the fund be depleted, but the State Bar of Texas’ operating fund also would be depleted, Ray told the court, Harris recounts.
Discussing the defense’s strategy, Helms says, “The other thing we tried to do is put into perspective what happened with Mr. Corea’s law practice. He had had a very successful law practice for a number of years that was based on flat-fee practices. Those types of practice went away, and he was relying on personal injury cases with contingent fees,” Helms says of his argument before the trial judge. “As a result in the changes of the practices of his firm and the result of his poor management of the firm, the firm began to deteriorate.”
“And Mr. Corea was aware, I believe, that at least some of the client funds were being used to run his practice improperly. I don’t believe he was aware of the entire magnitude of that until it was brought to his attention in [late] 2011,” says Helms who noted that Corea’s “prescription drug and personal problems” added to his firm’s deterioration.
“At that point the firm began to try to pay clients they owed money. Mr. Corea began selling some of his own property to try to make the clients whole. They were able to do that for some clients and there is no doubt that many of the clients” weren’t paid what they were owed.
Janie Martin, who also defended Corea at trial, did not return a call seeking comment.