Which is worse: to be unethical or to be stupid — really, really stupid?
Who says you have to choose? That’s the lesson of today’s story about a lawyer who fell for a Nigerian inheritance scam, dragged his clients into the mess as well, and just got his law license suspended by the Iowa Supreme Court.
Dear Friend: Please permit me to make your acquaintance in so informal a manner. This is necessitated by my urgent need to reach a dependable and trust wordy partner. We do not know each other, it does not matter.
My tale will not cause discomfort or embarrassment in whatever form, except to a monumentally moronic lawyer — who got cleared on some (but not all) of the ethics charges against him because he genuinely believed that a trunk full of money was going to magically show up on his office doorstep….
The lawyer in question is Robert Allan Wright Jr. The “Junior” matters here because Robert Allan Wright Sr. is one of Iowa’s most distinguished civil rights lawyers. Sadly, the apple has fallen a little far from the tree; Robert Allan Wright Jr. has had ethical issues before.
The facts section of Justice Daryl Hecht’s opinion is something to behold. Props to Justice Hecht for displaying what our tipster described as “studied neutrality” in describing a situation like this:
While representing Floyd Lee Madison in a criminal case in 2011, [lawyer Robert Allan Wright Jr.] was presented with documents purporting to evidence that Madison was the beneficiary of a large bequest from his long-lost cousin in Nigeria. Madison represented to Wright that upon payment of $177,660 in taxes owed on the inheritance in Nigeria, the sum of $18,800,000 would be released to Madison. He asked Wright to represent him in securing the transfer of the funds from Nigeria. In consideration for a fee equal to ten percent of the funds recovered, Wright agreed to represent Madison in the Nigerian transaction.
Now, being stupid is not a crime — or even a violation of legal ethics. Robert Wright got in trouble for persuading other clients of his to loan money to Floyd Lee Madison for purposes of securing the Nigerian inheritance. For example:
Wright was also representing Linda Putz at that time in a pending workers’ compensation case. The case was nearing completion, and Wright and Putz were awaiting receipt of proceeds of a settlement. Knowing Putz would soon net approximately $25,000 from the settlement, Wright informed her Madison hoped to borrow money to pay Nigerian authorities for an “anti-terrorism certificate” and inquired whether Putz would be willing to loan the sum of $12,500 for this purpose.
Which she did. In fact, Linda Putz ended up loaning a total of $25,000, her entire settlement.
Poor woman. Not only is she a Putz (hopefully that’s not her married name), but her lawyer was too:
In the course of his work on behalf of Madison in pursuit of the Nigerian inheritance, Wright communicated with persons he believed were representatives of the “Central Bank of Nigeria,” the “African Union,” and the President of Nigeria.
What a moron. Everyone knows Nigeria isn’t ruled by a president; it has a prince.
Of course, this didn’t end well. Madison didn’t get that Nigerian inheritance, Wright received no legal fees from that, and the loans made to Madison by Wright’s various clients never got repaid.
This unfortunate situation resulted in a slew of disciplinary charges against Robert Allan Wright Jr., including incompetence, failure to disclose or secure client consent to conflicts of interest, and assisting a client in dishonesty or fraud. But Wright got off on that last charge (emphasis added):
The [Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary] Board’s posthearing brief withdrew the allegation that Wright violated rule 32:1.2(d) by assisting a client in conduct Wright knew to be illegal or fraudulent. The Board made this withdrawal based on its view that “Wright clearly believed in the legitimacy of Madison’s inheritance . . . .” Noting “Wright appears to have honestly believed — and continues to believe — that one day a trunk full of . . . one hundred dollar bills is going to appear upon his office doorstep,” the Board asserted before the commission that Wright’s conduct might aptly be described as delusional, but not fraudulent.
One could use much harsher words than “delusional” to describe Wright’s actions. But people in Iowa are nice, really nice (so nice that their state’s flagship law school is actually cutting tuition).
A division of the Iowa Supreme Court’s Grievance Commission recommended the suspension of Robert Wright’s license to practice law. Once again displaying impeccable judgment, Wright appealed that recommendation, so he could get sanctioned and embarrassed on a grander scale by the Supreme Court of Iowa itself:
We suspend Wright’s license to practice law in this state with no possibility of reinstatement for a period of no less than twelve months. This suspension applies to all facets of the practice of law, including but not limited to advertising his services.
And as we all know from those ubiquitous disclaimers, lawyer advertising can include sending emails.
Dearest Beloved: Have you been injured in an accident? I do not come to you by chance….
(Flip to the next page to read or download the full opinion, which is really quite amazing. If you teach professional responsibility, consider this as fun fodder for your students.)