Dan Walters

State Bar settles one fight, but is embroiled in another

Joseph Dunn, then a state senator, is shown in 2003. He was fired in 2014 as president of the State Bar.
Joseph Dunn, then a state senator, is shown in 2003. He was fired in 2014 as president of the State Bar. Associated Press file

The legislative skirmishing over the future of the State Bar appears to be nearing an amicable resolution.

The agency that licenses and regulates California attorneys is shedding its ancillary role as a professional trade association and adopting other reforms to quiet criticism that it had been lax in disciplining bad lawyers.

With the State Bar’s recent moves, conflict inside the Legislature over reforms is likely to subside and legislation authorizing dues to be collected from attorneys is likely to pass.

However, the State Bar is still deeply embroiled in a nasty legal dispute over how and why it fired its former executive director, Joseph Dunn, that is airing some of the agency’s dirtiest linen.

Dunn, a former state senator from Orange County who lost a bid for Congress last year, was fired by State Bar trustees in 2014 after an independent investigation into allegations of wrongdoing.

“Dunn’s repeated failure to provide adequate or truthful information to the board plainly provides an adequate basis to terminate his at-will employment,” the leaked investigatory report said.

Dunn insists that he was fired not for wrongdoing, but because he had accused the State Bar’s chief trial counsel of manipulating data about a backlog of attorney disciplinary cases. The backlog has been one of the issues cited by agency critics as they sought reforms.

The State Bar fired Dunn without cause, denying him $192,000 in severance pay. He demanded an open arbitration hearing, saying he wanted to clear his name. The trial-like hearing, which began last week, has been a forum for bitter recriminations over who did what.

Think of it this way: Lawyers fighting with lawyers, with both sides retaining other lawyers, an investigation by lawyers playing a key role, and another lawyer hearing the case.

Although little noticed by mainstream media, the hearing has been a field day for the state’s aggressive legal media.

“The two leading figures in the State Bar’s fierce internal battle that ultimately led to the firing of executive director Joseph L. Dunn each testified Monday that the other’s wrongdoing drove the conflict that consumed the agency in recent years,” the Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, reported Tuesday.

Dunn’s attorney, Ben Meiselas, accuses the State Bar of leaking findings from the independent investigation that the State Bar never voted to accept.

“You just don’t do someone dirty like that,” Meiselas told arbitrator Edward Infante, according to The Recorder, another legal newspaper.

Meiselas argued that Dunn was fired for refusing to cover up the manipulated disciplinary backlog data, and “he did not want to lie to the Legislature.”

State Bar officials, however, said Dunn lost the board’s confidence by misleading it on pending litigation, and also spending State Bar funds on a trip to Mongolia.

State Bar President James Fox testified that the firing resulted from “lying” and “dishonesty.”

Less than a week of the hearing testimony has already aired a clothesline full of dirty linen, and it’s just beginning.