The 90,000 attorneys and judges working in the state of Texas are all sworn to uphold the law and abide by a code of ethics. And because they’re supposed to know better, a majority of them manage to make it through the year without getting disciplined, arrested, indicted or sent to prison.
But a few of them don’t.
Texas Lawyer has been documenting the misfortunes of the legal industry for the past three decades and there was no shortage of them during 2017. We’ve compiled a list of the most outrageous allegations and subsequent punishments dished out over the past 12 months for what we’re calling “The 2017 Top 10 Troubled Lawyers and Judges in Texas List.”
Consider the former San Antonio lawyer who created fake court rulings to duping a pair of clients into thinking that he’d won their case. Or the El Paso judge who was disciplined for shaming jurors and threatening lawyers with arrest—including one lawyer who failed to appear in his court because she was on maternity leave.
The following, which are presented in chronological order, are some of the best-read articles we published during the year.
All of the lawyers and judges on the list are considered innocent until proven guilty—or in the case of the State Bar of Texas or State Commission on Judicial Conduct discipline, until their administrative appeals run out.
1. Kevin Fine, a former state district judge who was arrested in a sting operation for felony attempted drug possession.
Fine had been sober for 10 years when he won election to Harris County’s 177th District Court in 2008. He’d won the job by campaigning on promises that he would help other addicts get sober and get out of the court system and later resigned from the bench in 2012 to return to private practice. But Fine was later arrested for the second time in two years on May 1 when he was caught by police in a drug sting in central Texas. According to court records, a woman who hired Fine to represent her against drug charges told a Kerr County Sheriff’s investigator that the lawyer would take payment in cash or trade sex and drugs for his services. Fine was arrested after police watched him discuss a meth deal with the woman. Fine later resigned his law license as a condition of a plea deal in one of the felony drug cases he faced.
2. Richard Kent Livesay, a McAllen solo who was indicted for filing lawsuits for people he’d never met.
The first order of business for most lawyers when they sign up a new client is to establish a rapport with them. But according to an indictment from a Tarrant County grand jury, Livesay apparently skipped that step. The indictment, handed up on June 5, included 16 counts of insurance fraud after he allegedly filed numerous roof hail damage lawsuits against insurers on behalf of homeowners he’d never met. That indictment alleged that Livesay engaged in organized crime by submitting lawsuits against insurance companies between 2014 and 2016 without first getting the homeowner’s consent.
3. Todd Prins, a former San Antonio lawyer who plead guilty to a federal charge after scamming clients with fake court rulings.
Prins’ clients must have been impressed when he showed them rulings from the Texas Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit proving that he’d won their case. The trouble was the rulings were phony, complete with faked signatures of various judges, which ultimately lead to Prins’ guilty plea to wire fraud in a San Antonio federal court on June 28. According to his indictment, Prins represented two plaintiffs in civil litigation, but put their case in abatement without their knowledge and created the fake court rulings to convince them he’d won the case. Prins billed the clients for the fake rulings but later filed for personal bankruptcy and issued them a $1.6 million promissory note, which he claimed to be the settlement from their lawsuit.
Prins is also alleged to have deposited $2.4 million intended for a real estate foreclosure sale into his lawyer’s trust fund account but later shifted $2 million of that money into his own office account and converting $800,000 of that for his own personal use. Prins resigned his law license and is now working a retail job to pay back the people he owes, according to his attorney Don Flanary. Prins is still awaiting sentencing.
4. Bilal Ahmed Khaleeq, a Dallas lawyer who was indicted for arranging a fake marriage for his legal assistant.
Because he works as an immigration lawyer, Dallas lawyer Khaleeq is presumably well aware of the proper way to gain legal entry into the United States. Despite that fact, Khaleeq was indicted on July 12 for conspiracy to commit marriage fraud after federal officials alleged he arranged a phony marriage for his legal assistant so she could remain in the United States. According to the indictment, Khaleeq allegedly solicited an unnamed citizen originally from India and paid him $745 to marry his legal assistant, Amna Cheema, a Pakistani citizen, in order for her to obtain lawful legal residency. He advised the couple to lie to U.S. Immigration officials by telling them they lived together and helped his legal assistant obtain supporting documents like joint bank accounts and tax returns, to make it appear they were married. He also advised the couple that such an arrangement violated federal law, but that it was highly unlikely there would be criminal consequences for their actions. Cheema was also charged with conspiracy to commit marriage fraud.
5. Amy Witherite, a Dallas plaintiffs lawyer arrested after she allegedly attacked people at a valet stand.
Waiting in line for a car at a valet stand is a frustrating rite of passage for anyone who takes part in the Dallas dining-and-night life experience. But Dallas plaintiffs lawyer Witherite allegedly elevated that annoyance to a new level when she was arrested along with her wife on Aug. 5 for getting into a fight with numerous people at a valet stand according to a police report. According to an arrest warrant, a valet told police that Witherite and her wife were both drunk and irate that Witherite’s 2017 Mercedes-Benz S550 was no longer parked in front of a restaurant. Witherite punched a man and then smashed a glass against another man’s face, according to police. Witherite’s wife walked up to another man standing near the valet stand and asked, “Do you think this is funny?” Witherite later took responsibility for the incident, which she said was fueled by alcohol, in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “I got upset at something I should have never gotten upset at,” she said.
6. Marco Antonio Delgado, an El Paso lawyer who forfeited his homes and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering.
Delgado had millions in the bank and split his time between homes in El Paso and Taos, New Mexico, when the feds came knocking on one of his doors with money laundering allegations. And after a federal jury found him guilty on several wire fraud counts, Delgado was to give up those homes on Sept. 28 after a federal judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison for money laundering. According to his indictment, Delgado acted as the legal representative of FGG Enterprises in 2010 when the company signed a $121 million contract with a Mexican-owned utility company for the installation of new power turbines for a power plant. Delgado diverted $32 million in payments from the Mexican utility company and deposited them in a bank account in the Turks and Caicos Islands. He later used the money to buy his residence in El Paso and a condominium in Taos. U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama ordered that in addition to 10 years in prison, Delgado must forfeit any property traceable to the money laundering convictions include the homes, their furnishings and more than $2 million he holds in a Turks and Caicos Islands bank account.
7. Perry Don Cortese, a Little River lawyer who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for an international money laundering scheme that ripped off law firms.
Cortese had a good thing going in Texas with his business partner Priscilla Ann Ellis. They would incorporate shell companies, open bank accounts for those fake companies and then contact lawyers and law firms for transactional work for their bogus business ventures—merely as a way to gain access to the attorney and law firms legal trust accounts. They would eventually end up taking $8.8 million from the lawyers and the law firms in which they ordered them to move the supposed proceeds of transactional conclusions to international money launderers between 2012 and 2015 before Cortese and Ellis were finally caught. In 2016, a Florida federal jury found both Cortese and Ellis guilty of money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Ellis was sentenced to 40 years for her role in the scheme. And on Oct. 21, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday of the Middle District of Florida sentenced Cortese to 25 years in prison for his part in the scam.
8. Guy Williams, a Corpus Christi state district judge who was suspended from the bench after a road rage incident.
A pending felony charge is a near surefire way to get a state district judge suspended from the bench in Texas. And that’s what happened to Williams, judge of the 148th District Court in Nueces County, who was suspended by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct on Nov. 6, days after he was indicted on felony aggravated assault charges from an alleged road rage incident. The criminal case involves an April 28 incident in which Williams is accused of attempting to run another vehicle off the road and pointing a gun at its occupants. The Judicial Conduct Commission has the authority to suspend a judge who is charged with either a felony or a misdemeanor that involves official conduct on the bench.
9. Luis Aguilar, an El Paso state district judge who was reprimanded for threatening to jail lawyers and shaming would-be jurors.
One of the main rules of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct requires that judges be “patient, dignified and courteous” to all that appear before them. Aguilar, judge of the 243rd District Court in El Paso, got a refresher on that rule after the State Commission on Judicial Conduct reprimanded him on Nov. 6 for threatening lawyers with arrest and treating jurors so poorly he reduced one person to tears. According to the reprimand, Aguilar issued a bench warrant for two lawyers who failed to appear, including a Brownsville lawyer who wasn’t given proper notice for a hearing because she had just given birth and was on leave from work. The commission also received numerous complaints about Aguilar’s judicial demeanor from prospective jurors—including an attorney who watched Aquilar make a juror cry because he did not believe the woman’s assertion that she had a limited understanding of English. In his response to the commission, Aguilar contends the complaints about his demeanor are politically motivated or brought be people who simply don’t like him. He also expressed his serious concerns over the efforts of El Paso residents to shirk jury duty.
10. Teresa Hawthorne, a Dallas state district judge who was also reprimanded for shaming jurors.
Hawthorne, judge of the 203rd District Court in Dallas, was also reprimanded by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct on Nov. 9 for giving jurors a piece of her mind—and for using her position to interject herself in a relative’s criminal case. According to the reprimand, Hawthorne presided over a jury trial in 2016 in which a jury rendered a guilty verdict and assessed a 99-year prison sentence. After the verdict, Hawthorne told the jurors she was “disturbed” by their verdict and that she didn’t think the victim had been raped and that she would have found the defendant not guilty. In her response to the commission, Hawthorne acknowledged that she told the jurors she would have found the defendant not guilty but denied that she shamed or reprimanded the jury. The commission also reprimanded Hawthorne for her involvement in her nephew’s criminal case that was filed in Lubbock County, concluding that she had ex parte communications with the judge assigned to that case and testified without a subpoena about her nephew’s character while referencing her position as judge on three separate occasions.