Becnel awaits court decision on suspension

Steve Korris Aug. 2, 2010, 2:31am


NEW ORLEANS – Daniel Becnel III of LaPlace expresses remorse for misconduct and waits for the Supreme Court of Louisiana to decide how long to suspend his law license.

Becnel, who accepted $5,000 to help a prisoner retract a plea but did little beyond filing a form the prisoner filled out, pleads for a nine month suspension.

"Mr. Becnel stands before the Court fully admitting his wrongdoing and he is genuinely remorseful," Dane Ciolino wrote on his behalf in June.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel recommends at least a year, and at most three years with half of it deferred.

"Mr. Becnel did not advise his client that there was nothing of any legal substance that Mr. Becnel could do for him, nor did he refund any portion of the advanced fee," deputy disciplinary counsel Fred Ours wrote.

He wrote that in 2005, the Court suspended Becnel for a year over similar misconduct.

The Court will hear oral argument on Sept. 8.

Becnel's father, Daniel Becnel Jr., leads a national class action firm in Reserve.

The firm's website shows the son as a member, though the son said at his disciplinary hearing that he practiced separately at Becnel, Landry and Becnel.

In 2006, he received $5,000 from Jody LaCombe, brother of prisoner Owen LaCombe.

The prisoner faced a 20 year sentence on a guilty plea he entered in Ascension Parish after his lawyer assured him the plea would cap his sentence at seven years.

In prison, he filled out a post conviction relief form and mailed it to Becnel.

Becnel filed it as a habeas corpus petition in federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana, at Baton Rouge, in 2007.

He didn't belong there, for his Middle District dues had lapsed.

District Judge John Parker dismissed the petition as untimely.

He ruled that LaCombe failed to exhaust state court remedies.

He ruled that Becnel failed to file a necessary memorandum with the petition.

In 2008, LaCombe filed a complaint against Becnel.

He moved to reopen his federal case, claiming Becnel failed to apply for post conviction relief in Ascension Parish as he was hired to do.

Magistrate Judge Christine Nolan denied the motion last year, ruling LaCombe should have filed it within ten days of Parker's judgment.

LaCombe's misconduct complaint against Becnel fared better.

At a hearing last September, Becnel told three members of a disciplinary committee that he thought he earned the fee.

Chairwoman Nanette Jolivette-Brown asked why he didn't file a memorandum.

He said, "I didn't have any grounds to file a memorandum."

Ours said, "He wanted you to file in state court, didn't he?"

Becnel said LaCombe asked why he filed it in federal court.

Ours asked if LaCombe knew he hadn't exhausted state remedies.

Becnel said, "He alleged that they hadn't been exhausted."

Ours said, "Did you check that out on his behalf?"

Becnel said, "I thought that they had been exhausted."

Jolivette-Brown said, "Why didn't you fight for him? You didn't fight for him when you filed it and then, after the judge ruled, you still didn't fight for him.

"How can a lawyer honestly earn a fee when you find out that you should have never conducted the work in the first place?"

Becnel said, "I would not have found out had I not gone through the process of representing him."

Jolivette-Brown said, "That doesn't convince me that you earned your fee. At best I would have thrown myself on my sword and filed a brief and said, you know, it's my fault. I committed malpractice."

The committee recommended a nine month suspension to the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board.

Ours objected, arguing that the misconduct deserved stronger sanction.

Board members agreed, recommending a year and a day.

They required full accounting of the fee and refund of the undisputed portion.

They found that Becnel failed to understand the principles of the post conviction relief process in state and federal courts.

They described his research as completely inadequate.

They found he failed to inform LaCombe of his opinion that he had no grounds to pursue relief in state or federal court.

They found he failed to consult LaCombe about the means to accomplish his objective.

They found he failed to advise LaCombe that he wasn't admitted to the Middle District.

They counted as aggravating factors his prior suspension, the vulnerability of an incarcerated client, selfish motive and lack of remorse.

Ciolino, a member of the father's firm, answered in June that Becnel extensively researched LaCombe's case.

"Mr. LaCombe was not injured because he hired Mr. Becnel too late and, as a result, had no actionable claims," Ciolino wrote.

"He did not file the petition with the intent to file a frivolous paper, but rather with the intent to appease his client," he wrote.

"Unless every lawyer is guilty of being selfish for taking fees on a case, selfish motive simply should not apply here," he wrote.

"Mr. Becnel's character and reputation within our legal community are outstanding," he wrote.

When the Court hears the case, Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball will not hear it.

Kimball continues to recover from a stroke she suffered in January, public information officer Valerie Willard said on July 27.

Willard said Kimball works daily as the court's chief administrator.

When oral arguments start on Sept. 7, retired judge Philip Ciaccio will replace Kimball.

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