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Norfolk lawyer disbarred after client’s conviction overturned

Peter Vieth//April 9, 2014

Norfolk lawyer disbarred after client’s conviction overturned

Peter Vieth//April 9, 2014//

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VSBA three-judge circuit court panel has disbarred a Norfolk lawyer after finding he made intentional misrepresentations to a federal judge about his advice to a criminal client.

The federal judge vacated the client’s convictions in 2011 based on ineffective assistance of his counsel, John W. Bonney.

Revoking Bonney’s law license after a Feb. 26 hearing, the Norfolk Circuit Court panel also found that Bonney failed to provide competent representation to a bankruptcy client.

Most of the misconduct charges against Bonney arose from his 2009 representation of a former high school teacher accused of receiving child pornography. It was the first time Bonney had represented a trial-level federal child pornography defendant, he acknowledged in a later hearing.

Bonney arranged for his client to plead guilty to two charges, but there was confusion about the maximum penalties. The plea agreement – signed by the defendant and lawyers for both sides – stated, “The maximum penalty for this offense is a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of five (5) years [and] a maximum term of imprisonment of twenty (20) years.”

It was not clear that those terms applied to each of the two charges involved in the plea agreement.

Bonney later insisted he told his client, when they signed the plea agreement, that the client was facing up to 40 years in prison, but other evidence suggested that both the client and Bonney mistakenly believed the maximum was only 20 years.

“I’m in a real bind if this matter is going to exceed 20 years,” Bonney wrote to a prosecutor after the plea was accepted by the court, according to evidence at a 2011 hearing.

At that hearing, U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Friedman vacated the defendant’s conviction, agreeing that Bonney had failed to provide effective assistance.

“It’s obvious to the Court that Mr. Bonney is not at all familiar with procedures in handling criminal cases in this court,” Friedman said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Besides his apparent confusion over the maximum penalty faced by the client, Bonney failed to object to proposed enhancements to the sentencing guidelines and claimed that he sought dismissal of a charge after the plea agreement was done, according to evidence heard by the circuit court panel.

The client – who received a 276-month sentence with Bonney as counsel – later pleaded guilty a second time with a different lawyer and received a 262-month sentence.

When similar issues involving Bonney’s representation were litigated in Norfolk Circuit Court in a discipline hearing, the judicial panel was unpersuaded by Bonney’s account.

“The Panel finds much of Respondent’s testimony during the misconduct phase of the hearing was totally lacking in credibility,” the court wrote in its discipline order.

In the bankruptcy case, Bonney allegedly advised a client to make a gift of her ownership interest in a residential property before filing bankruptcy, but then failed to disclose the transfer and listed the property as an asset in the bankruptcy filing.

Bonney’s paperwork in the case had other problems, according to the court’s findings. Bonney failed to properly identify the debtor’s current employer and “significantly underreported” her current income, the court’s order said.

In addition to findings of incompetence in both representations, the circuit court panel determined Bonney had knowingly made a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal in the criminal case and paid himself prematurely from the $35,000 advanced by his client.

Judge H. Thomas Padrick Jr. of Virginia Beach presided at the circuit court panel, which also included retired Judge Aundria D. Foster of Newport News and retired Judge Westbrook J. Parker of Suffolk.

Bonney said he planned to appeal the disbarment.

Bonney’s record with the VSB includes a private reprimand with terms, a public reprimand with terms and a 45-day suspension in 2012 based on alleged misconduct in two cases involving client fees.

Bonney is the son of the late U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Hal J. Bonney Jr. who died in 2012. Bonney said the court failed to consider that he had to care for his ailing father as he was trying to handle the cases at issue.

Bonney also said in an email that he plans to move to Los Angeles to enter the movie production business.

Among Bonney’s high profile clients was Jill McGlone, the Norfolk public agency employee who remained on the public payroll for 12 years without having to show up at work. Bonney filed McGlone’s bankruptcy case, according to court records.

This story was updated on April 9 to add information about the sentencing of the criminal defendant.

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