IlLegal Bills 

Disbarment case leaves clients hanging

Tales about high-priced legal mediocrity often end with a punch line. But for a string of south-central Idaho clients who sought the legal advice of one attorney, their dealings with legal ineptitude didn't leave them laughing. The incompetence left them broke, harassed, inadequately defended and cleaned out by opposing divorce attorneys.

Boise-based Idaho State Bar Association investigators recently closed the case on Raymundo Pena, a Minidoka County attorney accused of pocketing a client's settlement earnings and swapping legal services for sex, cocaine and home improvements.

Pena recently accepted disbarment and admitted to 31 counts of professional misconduct for scamming clients, the court and the Idaho State Bar Association.

It's not often that Idaho State Bar counsel see a case involving so many people and so many charges, an investigator said.

"People do not get disbarred often," said Julia Crossland, Idaho State Bar deputy bar counsel. "The conduct has to be pretty bad to warrant disbarment."

Pena is one of 11 Idaho attorneys who were disbarred between 2002 and 2006. Their offenses ranged from criminal misconduct to failure to respond to a disciplinary authority like the Supreme Court or State Bar counsel. Others charged unreasonable fees or breached attorney client privilege, according to Idaho State Bar reports. The Idaho State Bar is currently investigating about 260 complaints against other attorneys.

Pena, who reportedly comes from a prominent Minidoka County family, often represented the Spanish-speaking population of southeastern Idaho. His disbarment, which was briefly covered in Pocatello's Spanish newspaper Idaho Unido, leaves about four attorneys in the Rupert area who speak Spanish, said Jason Walker, prosecuting attorney with Minidoka County. More than a dozen of Pena's past clients, many of them Hispanic, sought advice from him for divorce proceedings. Although BW contacted other Rupert-area officials for comment, many said they were not familiar enough with Pena or his work. Walker did not want to comment on Pena's disbarment or his professional conduct because Pena is still facing other criminal charges.

"This was a huge case and I'm glad that it was resolved when it was," Crossland said.

"It was pretty extreme," she said of the complaints against Pena, which also included practicing law without a license.

Pena allegedly also liked to barter his legal services for services that don't fall within the parameters of the law. According to court documents, sexual favors, cocaine and an occasional home repair were things Pena tried to trade for a legal defense. Other times, Pena was alleged to have simply taken his clients' money without performing any legal services, the documents said.

In 2003, Pena defended Richard and Cindy Martin, who were charged with possession of stolen firearms. After Pena initially agreed to defend the couple, they were also charged with crimes relating to the possession of methamphetamine. According to a complaint filed with the Professional Conduct Board of the Idaho State Bar, Pena told them he was willing to take payments for his legal work in the form of sex.

Pena allegedly told the couple that it would cost them an additional $5,000 to defend them against the drug-related charges. Shortly after that, the complaint alleges that Pena asked the woman he was defending if she was a swinger. She said that Pena told her if she were to "go away" with him and his girlfriend, who had the "hots" for Pena's client, he would not charge the additional $5,000. Pena's client reported that she believed that he was offering to reduce her legal fees in exchange for sex.

Pena's other alleged barters were sometimes more subtle. On one occasion he was accused of grilling the mother of a DUI defendant about her sleeping arrangements with her fiance and asked whether she was naked during a telephone conversation.

Court documents contend that on at least one occasion, Pena asked a client to provide him with cocaine in exchange for his services. Another former client Pena represented in divorce proceedings alleged that when she met with Pena in his office, he asked her to perform oral sex and assist him in masturbation. When she tried to run out the door, she said, Pena blocked the entrance and told her, "Nobody fucks with me and you better not forget that." Pena then reportedly exposed himself to the client.

The client, who was not identified in the court's documents, said that Pena did not contact her after that, even though she tried to call Pena several times to check the status of her divorce. She eventually went to court with Pena. Prior to entering the courtroom, Pena allegedly told the client that sometimes he does not win and he probably would not win her case. The complaint notes that Pena was unprepared in court, and his client's husband was awarded the house.

Pena lost that divorce case in 1997. And Pena's former client told the court that she endured his sexual innuendo and inappropriate comments during several chance encounters after 1997. Her last encounter was in 2003.

Years passed between these various episodes and his disbarment, leaving him to practice. Crossland said was in part because Pena did not respond to the Idaho State Bar's investigation, or to their requests for information. The State Bar would often have to wait months for Pena to respond to certified letters.

The disbarment also requires a lengthy process that involves a series of investigations and formal complaints. The attorney accused of misconduct is given the opportunity to respond to the complaints throughout the process. But Pena did not always respond.

"He just ignored us," Crossland said.

The State Bar's investigation of Pena also unearthed new complaints throughout the course of its investigation. Complaints were continuously added to Pena's long list of charges as attorney investigators did their work. The State Bar filed its final 66-page complaint on July 31, 2006. The document detailed 37 charges and underwent three amendments.

Crossland said that many of Pena's former clients are serving prison time and some may have not known that they had the right to file complaints against Pena. This may have kept some of the misconduct hidden, Crossland said. But she said that for the most part, Pena's former clients were anxious to report his misconduct.

"They can't wait to get to us," Crossland said. "I don't know if there are that many people out there who don't come to us."

Pena admitted to most of the complaints filed against him, including charges that he submitted false material to a tribunal and failed to respond to Bar counsel. But he denied that he agreed to reduce legal fees in exchange for drugs or sex. Most of these charges were based off of his former clients' accounts and did not happen in the presence of witnesses.

In an affidavit filed on behalf of Pena, a medical doctor suggested that Pena's misconduct was a result of the clinical depression he was suffering.

Pena refused to respond to BW's request for an interview at the advice of his attorney, Stanley Cole.

"Ray's position is that it's going to be another newspaper zoo, and he prefers not to say anything," Cole said.

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