The State Worker

Audit: California State Bar went easy on lawyers to cut complaint caseload

Joe Dunn, when he served in the state Senate, speaks during a committee hearing. He went on to serve four years as executive director of the California State Bar until he was fired in December.
Joe Dunn, when he served in the state Senate, speaks during a committee hearing. He went on to serve four years as executive director of the California State Bar until he was fired in December. Sacramento Bee file

A state audit issued Thursday paints an unflattering picture of the California State Bar as willing to settle attorney discipline cases too quickly, track case data too loosely and spend too freely, all at the expense of its mission to protect the public from bad lawyers.

Confronted with an unacceptably high backlog of more than 5,000 complaints against attorneys five years ago, the bar frequently settled cases and may have been too lenient on attorneys who deserved stiff punishment or disbarment, State Auditor Elaine Howle’s report said.

The State Bar also spent $76.6 million to buy and upgrade a Los Angeles building – $50 million more than originally estimated – without

determining whether the investment made financial sense.

Auditors also found that the bar under-reports its caseload and that its revenue from legislatively mandated member dues has so outpaced its expenses that it has $32 million in the bank, far more cash on hand than it needs. The excess revenue could have been spent on staff to address caseload issues, but instead it gave the State Bar “the flexibility to purchase the Los Angeles building,” the report says.

“We believe the State Bar needs to evaluate the revenue it receives,” the audit states, “and the services it provides.”

The bar is an extension of the California Supreme Court, funded largely by dues. It regulates and licenses nearly 226,000 attorneys statewide, and wields power to punish those who violate legal and ethical standards.

Howle recommended the bar redouble efforts to consistently discipline attorneys and “prevent its management or staff from circumventing those processes,” carefully analyze proposed expenditures and work with the Legislature to set backlog-reporting standards and “an appropriate annual membership fee.”

In a response letter, the State Bar Acting Executive Director Robert Hawley said the organization “agrees generally with all of the recommendations, while … there may be disagreements with some of the details.”

The State Bar for years has endured criticism as politicized and ineffective, but the audit follows a particularly low point late last year when the bar fired executive director Joe Dunn, sparking a lawsuit and back-and-forth allegations of malfeasance.

Shortly before he was let go, Dunn filed an anonymous complaint that alleged an employee was manipulating data to hide a huge backlog of unprocessed complaints against attorneys. After he was fired, Dunn sued, claiming his termination was retaliation. The bar denied it.

Then a confidential report by an outside law firm commissioned by the bar’s trustees ahead of Dunn’s firing was leaked, which reported Dunn had submitted a $5,600 expense claim for a going-away event for a departing bar president. Last month, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered the two sides to seek mediation.

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