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Matter of Spina

Decided: September 21, 1990.

IN THE MATTER OF GEORGE SPINA, AN ATTORNEY AT LAW


On an order to show cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.

For Disbarment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein. Opposed -- None.

Per Curiam

Respondent, George C. Spina, pleaded guilty in 1984 to one count of a two-count information filed by the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C. The second count, the subject of the plea, charged respondent with taking property without right (a lesser-included offense of petty larceny commonly referred to as "unauthorized borrowing"), in violation of D.C. Code ยง 22-1211. The offense is equivalent to a disorderly-persons offense under New Jersey law. The Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) moved before the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) for final discipline based on a criminal conviction. See Rule 1:20-6(b)(2)(i). After a hearing, a five-member majority of the DRB recommended disbarment, with four members voting for a three-year suspension.

After completion of proceedings in this Court, we remanded to the DRB to prepare Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions, affording both the OAE and respondent the opportunity to comment on those findings. Thereafter the DRB submitted its supplemental report, and again five members voted to disbar and four to suspend for three years. Our independent review of the entire record leads us to accept the recommendation of the majority of the DRB, calling for disbarment.

I

Shortly after being admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1977, respondent began his association with the International Law Institute (ILI), which was then an independently-chartered entity of Georgetown University, made part of the Georgetown University Law Center for administrative convenience. The Law Center handled routine administrative matters for the ILI but did not exercise overall direction or policy control over its activities. The ILI became a separate entity on July 1, 1983,

and is no longer controlled by the University. Although Spina was admitted to practice in the District of Columbia in 1979, he has never practiced law either in New Jersey or in the District.

At various times respondent held the positions of Director of Research, Director of Administration, Executive Director, and Acting Director of the ILI. His responsibilities required him to function as teacher, administrator, and fund-raiser. He was frequently called on to travel throughout the United States and abroad to conduct ILI-sponsored conferences and programs, in addition to which he spent considerable time, effort, and money entertaining important members of the international legal community. He devoted himself almost completely to the affairs of the ILI, so that, according to his attorney, "it virtually became his whole life."

Respondent's efforts were successful in that under his direction the ILI flourished and prospered, but those efforts were not without cost. Respondent's salary started at $16,000 and never exceeded $30,000 a year, an amount insufficient to fund the various activities that Spina thought necessary to advance the interests of ILI. He therefore began to spend significant amounts of his own money on ILI-related matters, but quickly became impatient with the inefficiency of the University's cumbersome reimbursement process. As a result Spina began to intermingle ILI money with his own by frequently depositing ILI funds in his personal account, taking the position that he was spending ILI funds on ILI business. The liberties he took with ILI's money, however, exceeded any recognized bounds of propriety.

For example, on March 6, 1979, August 7, 1979, and February 12, 1980, Spina deposited in his personal checking account three checks representing contributions to ILI, totalling about $17,000. Also during 1980 he submitted reimbursement claims for about $1600 for three first-class tickets covering air travel for business trips, when in fact Georgetown University Law Center had originally purchased those tickets. Respondent's unorthodox

and improper accounting procedures came to the attention of Georgetown University officials when, in 1981, the Bechtel Corporation inquired about a $15,000 contribution it had made to ILI by check in December 1980 -- a check that Spina had deposited in his personal checking account on December 20. Unable to locate the money, University officials opened an investigation. Respondent, apparently unaware of the probe, continued his errant behavior by depositing into his personal account, in April 1981, traveler's checks and currency received by the Law Center as tuition payments. Finally the assistant dean of the Law Center confronted Spina in May 1981 with the Bechtel-check problem. Instead of acknowledging the error of his ways, respondent invented a series of wholly-implausible explanations about the missing check.

Remarkably, respondent's awareness of the investigation produced no change in his handling of other people's money: he continued to deposit ILI funds in his personal account, including checks and currency received by the Law Center as tuition payments. Equally remarkably, in September 1981 he sought reimbursement of about $400, the cost of a limousine service, which he told the Law Center had been for a business trip with Senator Charles Matthias of Maryland and the Attorney General of Australia. In fact, it had been for respondent's personal use to attend a wedding.

The Bechtel Corporation's missing check continued to baffle the Law Center investigators. In addition to constructing five different versions of what had happened to those funds, respondent attempted to alter a copy of the check and submitted forged invoices. In November 1981, however, Spina finally acknowledged that he had converted the Bechtel check to his own use. When pressed about conversions of other ILI funds, however, he insisted that there had been no other instances of conversion. Respondent was dismissed from his position with ILI in November 1981. Ten days thereafter he made restitution of the $15,000 plus interest.

Thereafter the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia continued the investigation, culminating in the issuance in June 1984 of the two-count information. By that time respondent had made full restitution of all amounts ultimately found due the University. Although the record is not entirely clear on the precise amounts in question, we accept respondent's summary, as follows:

Total original amount claimed to be

mishandled under [U.S. Attor-

ney's] investigation $46,499.66

Amount restored by Spina before

commencement of the investiga

tion ($19,900.00)

Adjusted total amount remaining

during investigation 26,599.66

Total offset of business-related

expenditures, as allowed by ILI

Trustees 18,368.85

Less amounts not reimbursable

under GULC policy 4,067.94

Less miscellaneous bookkeeping

adjustments 641.87

---------

Net offset credit allowed under

GULC policy $13,659.04

Amount repaid by Spina $12,940.62

On June 24, 1984, Spina pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of taking property, the Bechtel $15,000 check, without right. As part of the plea agreement Spina admitted converting an additional $32,000. The transcript of the proceedings reads:

THE COURT: As part of the plea agreement, you also have agreed to admit to converting amounts listed in Count One, paragraphs 9 through 12 [of the information].

Paragraph 9 of Count One alleges that you took or converted funds and checks totalling $32,000 as follows:

On March 6th, 1979, $2,000; August 7, 1979, $5,000; February 12th, 1980, $10,000; December 20, 1980, $15,000; that you used for your own personal purposes.

That Count Ten indicates that you converted on April 1, 1981 and June 17, 1981 in the form of traveler's checks and currency of $11,500; that further that during 1980 that you requested reimbursement and received a reimbursement for an airline ticket having the total value of $1592.26.

And finally, in paragraph 12, September 14th or thereabouts, 1981, you submitted a claim for a reimbursement for limousine services of $407.40 knowing the limousine services were for your personal use.

As part of the plea agreement the Government indicated you would admit to converting those amounts on or about the date set forth in paragraphs 9 through 12 that I've just reviewed.

Did you so convert those funds as alleged in paragraphs 9 through 12 -- DEFENDANT SPINA: Yes, I did.

When asked to tell the court in his own words what he had done, respondent said:

During the course of my employment with the University and the Institute, various times I converted -- I commingled their moneys and my own. When I first went to work I was spending some of my own money on them and towards the end of my employment I was spending some of their money on me.

While I knew what I was doing and I knew it was wrong, and I know it's wrong now and I regret it, I've never denied doing it. It was stupid and foolish but nevertheless.

In August 1984 the court sentenced respondent to six-months confinement and fined him $100, the maximum permitted under the law. The court had no doubt that "[Spina] did convert the money without right, that that very likely constitutes an offense for which disbarment could be ordered * * *." It then suspended execution of the custodial term and put respondent on probation for three years with several special conditions, all of which he has satisfactorily fulfilled.

In August 1985 the District of Columbia ethics authorities suspended respondent from the practice of law for medical reasons. The District has not addressed the merits of the ethics matter. The OAE commenced these proceedings in July 1986.

The DRB concluded that "[r]espondent's conviction establishes that he engaged in dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law, in violation of DR 1-102(A)(3)(4)." Turning to the appropriate

discipline, the DRB observed that the fact that respondent's misconduct did not arise from a lawyer-client relationship or that respondent did not commit his offense in a professional capacity is immaterial, although the absence of a lawyer-client relationship rendered respondent's misuse of ILI's funds not technically a violation of DR 9-102, which would automatically mandate disbarment, citing In re Suchanoff, 93 N.J. 226, 460 A.2d 642 (1983). Addressing the mitigating factors, including respondent's remorse, his contention that everything he did was intended to benefit and to enhance the prestige of ILI, and his apparently otherwise unblemished career, the DRB found them insufficient to overcome the force of his "purloin[ing]" of the Bechtel check and his "admissions to many more instances of conversions * * *." The Board, characterizing respondent as "a calculating thief," said:

Respondent's avarice overwhelmed him. Unlike the attorney's actions in [ In re Rutledge, 101 N.J. 493, 502 A.2d 569 (1986)], where he diverted travel agency commissions to his own personal use, and the lawyer's actions in In re Franklin, [71 N.J. 425, 365 A.2d 1361 (1976)], where his business expenses were exaggerated, respondent engaged in a systematic and continuous misuse of his employer's money to sustain an outward lifestyle that can only be characterized as opulent. In so doing, respondent forged endorsements on checks, stole currency and submitted fraudulent expense vouchers. Respondent's assertions that he believed the money to be his for use for ILI business is simply not credible.

The DRB rejected as well respondent's argument that his psychological problems excused his misconduct. It underscored respondent's awareness of the wrongfulness of his conduct, surely by May 1981 when the Law Center's assistant dean first questioned respondent. The DRB concluded that Spina's fabrication of five different explanations for the check's disappearance demonstrated his moral awareness of misconduct, despite which he continued to divert money to his own account.

Believing that there is a need to guarantee to the public that one who cannot conform to the standards of the profession will never again be licensed, a majority of the DRB concluded that "respondent's misconduct 'constitutes irrefutable evidence of a profound lack of professional good character and fitness'"

(quoting In re Templeton, 99 N.J. 365, 367, 492 A.2d 1001 (1985)). Dissenting from the five-member majority's recommendation for disbarment, four members of the DRB, feeling "bound by respondent's plea to a crime [that] would constitute a disorderly persons offense in New Jersey," and believing that the facts underlying the conviction for conversion of ...


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