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Discipline cases arise in SW and Northern Virginia

Details are slowly coming to light about the charges against the latest of a crop of Virginia lawyers accused of major misdeeds. One Southwest Virginia lawyer allegedly passed off phony legal documents to cover for work he did not do, while a former Northern Virginia attorney is accused of settling cases without the clients’ knowledge and pocketing the proceeds.

The case against Gerard R. Marks, a Christiansburg lawyer whose license has been suspended, is remarkable more for the nature of the alleged misdeeds – creating false documents to fool his clients into thinking their legal issues had been favorably resolved – than the size of the claimed losses.

It’s the aggregate amount of the alleged thefts by former Woodbridge attorney Stephen T. Conrad – $3.4 million in personal injury settlements – that has had bar leaders rethinking the rejection of a client-protection proposal. It didn’t help that the disclosure of the apparent thefts came on the heels of three other cases of alleged impropriety involving millions of dollars.

At least one Marks client thought that he was divorced because he received what appeared to be a final divorce decree, signed by a judge and bearing a court seal. Apparently, however, no such decree had ever been entered. The former client now has to contend with the fallout from actions he took based on the assumption that he was no longer married.

Two of the charges against Marks involve adoption papers in uncontested cases. Other claims had to do with real estate matters.
The alleged forgeries may have come to light when a Montgomery County property dispute went to court. Local developer Roger Woody was using part of a shopping center parking lot to drive dump trucks to a lot that he owned. He claimed that he had a valid easement, based on paperwork provided by Marks, his attorney.

The shopping center owners filed suit asking for a judgment that no such easement existed. In one news account, one of the landowners called the paperwork “the Houdini right of way that just appeared.”

In September 2007, several months after that dispute arose, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Josiah T. Showalter Jr. entered a cryptic order, barring Marks from practice in the 27th Circuit until further notice. In December, the Virginia State Bar suspended Marks’ license “for failure to comply with a subpoena duces tecum.” In April, Marks was indicted on 21 felony counts related to 11 alleged forgeries.

An arraignment is now scheduled for June 18, but the clerk’s office advises that a substitute judge has not yet been appointed. “It’s kind of in a holding pattern right now,” said special prosecutor Joel Branscom. Branscom had no estimate of the amount of money involved in Marks’ alleged misdeeds, nor did he speculate on the reason for the alleged falsifications.

Branscom said that Marks was released on a recognizance bond. “He turned himself in and has been cooperative,” said Branscom.
By contrast to the handful of forgeries attributed to Marks, Conrad is accused of fraud on a massive scale. An FBI investigator wrote, “I have determined that Conrad defrauded between 200 and 300 of his clients out of their share of settlement proceeds and improperly kept for himself at least $3.4 million in settlement proceeds.”

Conrad was charged last year by Prince William County authorities, but the state charges recently were dropped in favor of a federal wire fraud count. A receiver was appointed to take control of his law office. He is represented by the federal public defender’s office. He consented to revocation of his law license.

Before the Conrad accusations came to light, the Virginia State Bar Council soundly rejected a proposal that would have required insurance carriers to notify claimants when they sent settlement checks to claimants’ lawyers. Later, some of the strongest critics of the proposal conceded that such a law would have exposed Conrad’s alleged misdeeds much sooner and would have prevented much of the damage.

Now, bar leaders are considering a task force to look into new measures for client protection, including insurance notification to claimants. The Committee on Lawyer Discipline is to look into a proposal for random audits of attorney trust accounts.

Other attorneys exposed in recent years are:

• Clarence G. Lowry of the Lynchburg area, sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $2.2 million in restitution

• Jimmie Ray Lawson II of Collinsville, serving a five-year sentence for defrauding victims of $2.59 million.

• Troy A. Titus of Virginia Beach, accused of bouncing checks and facing a string of civil suits alleging that he took as much as $3.3 million.

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