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 and Stein. Opposed -- None.
This matter arises from a grievance filed with the District XIV Ethics Committee by the law firm of McCarter & English (M & E) against one of its former partners, respondent, Steven G. Siegel. The complaint charged respondent with three counts of unethical conduct in violation of Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(c), which prohibits "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation." The first count charged respondent with fabricating disbursements and misappropriating funds of M & E, the second count with submitting false expenses against a client's account, and the third with improperly withdrawing M & E funds as a gift from a client to himself.
The Special Master found on the first count that respondent had submitted thirty-four false requests for disbursements from September 4, 1986, to November 21, 1989, and had received "$21,636.32
in either goods, services or cash to which he was not entitled." On count two, he determined that respondent had obtained $4,483.95 in false disbursements.
Count three involved a $53,450 gift to respondent from a client for respondent's diligent and successful efforts in handling one matter. The Special Master found that respondent had executed a check request for the $53,450 from M & E funds and had listed the reason as "for payment of closing proceeds." According to the Special Master, respondent did not reveal to M & E that this payment represented a gift from a client, and thus prevented the firm from considering whether it would prohibit the acceptance of the gift or whether the gift was the property of the partnership. The Special Master found that respondent's conduct constituted dishonesty, deceit, and misrepresentation in violation of Rule 8.4(c).
The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) sustained the Special Master's finding that respondent was guilty of unethical conduct. The DRB, however, based its Conclusion on the findings involving counts one and two, but not on those concerning count three. A majority of the DRB recommended a three-year suspension. The three lay members Dissented. Citing respondent's "extensive ($25,000) and extended (three years)" theft from his partners, the Dissent recommended disbarment.
Our independent review of the record leads us to agree with the DRB that respondent's acceptance of the gift, as alleged in count three, did not clearly and convincingly violate Rule 8.4(c). We find, however, that the evidence clearly and convincingly establishes that respondent knowingly misappropriated funds from his partners. Respondent's repeated deception compels disbarment.
The Decision and Recommendation of the DRB summarized the charges and relevant evidence relating to counts one and two as follows:
Beginning in 1986 and through the end of 1989, respondent converted in excess of $25,000 in funds belonging to M & E by submitting false requests for disbursements drawn against "unapplied retainers," [which are] monies collected and owned by M & E as legal fees, but not yet transferred from the clients' files to M & E's accounts. * * *
It was through the use of those unapplied retainers that respondent's carefully contrived scheme to divert M & E funds for his personal benefit succeeded, went undetected for three and one-half years and might have remained unexposed if not for M & E's discovery, soon after respondent's departure from the firm, of a questionable American Express charge to a client's file. * * *
By way of illustration of a personal expense paid by M & E's funds through artifice on respondent's part, on July 10, 1987 and June 15, 1989, respondent signed disbursement requests for $689 and $530 respectively, listing the purpose therefor as "surveyor charges" owed to Coviello Brothers, Inc. in two real estate matters. In reality, that business concern was a professional landscaping service that had landscaped respondent's residence. Other false disbursement requests (thirty-four in all) covered payments for respondent's personal tennis club fees (totalling $1,700), theatre tickets ($3,000), personal legal fees ($3,000), dental expenses ($645), mortgage service fee in connection with his ...