Supreme Court hears attorney discipline explanations

Steve Korris Oct. 7, 2010, 3:26am

Two lawyers await Supreme Court discipline for tampering with a witness, and two await discipline for keeping fees they didn't earn.

The Justices heard explanations for all four on Sept. 8, starting with John Stockstill and Daniel Stanford of Lafayette.

They mixed themselves up in a case of a father who forced his 16 year old daughter to have sex with a woman.

The father retained Stockstill for criminal defense.

The daughter stopped cooperating with prosecutors and didn't testify at trial.

It turned out that she and her father signed a confidentiality agreement.

Justice John Weimer asked assistant disciplinary counsel Fred Ours if the intent was to prevent her testimony.

Weimer said, "We don't have the testimony of the victim."

Ours said, "No one can find her."

He said the defendant approached the witness to resolve the matter.

He said the defendant's family pressured her but she didn't yield.

Justice Jeannette Knoll asked if he pleaded to a lesser offense.

Ours said he did, and he was required to register as a sex offender.

Knoll asked if the agreement contributed to the decision to reduce the offense.

Ours said it played a part but wasn't a controlling factor.

"She didn't want to testify in open court," Ours said.

Knoll said that wasn't uncommon in incest cases.

"It's very hard for the state to get a conviction because so often they recant," she said.

For Stockstill, Paul Hebert of Lafayette said, "It's all hearsay."

He referred to the daughter's intent, and Weimer stopped him.

"It is not about her intent," Weimer said.

"It's about what the lawyers intended," he said.

Hebert said Stockstill was a civil lawyer who took the case because the only available criminal defense lawyer recused himself.

He said confidentiality agreements are common in civil cases.

He said no one told the judge anyone tampered.

Stanford, representing himself, said he and Stockstill practice separately in the same building.

He said Stockstill asked him to present documents to the daughter.

He said he and the daughter met, and her lawyer was there.

"There is no document that can prevent a witness from testifying," Stanford said.

"John Kevin Stockstill wouldn't have allowed that meeting if he thought he would inculpate himself."

He said he still doesn't know what the father said, except that he apologized.

He said they didn't try to prevent the case from going to trial.

Attorneys' fees

Next, assistant disciplinary counsel Gregory Tweed told the Justices that Gerard Torry of Baton Rouge kept funds of three clients after they asked for refunds.

He recommended suspension for a year.

He said Torry used the funds for his own benefit.

He said Torry took $15,000 on a case though he believed and soon learned for certain that a conflict of interest would prevent him from working on it.

He said Torry refunded it three and a half years later, without interest.

He said Torry's victim was in jail with no attorney to pursue recovery.

For Torry, Allen Myles of Plaquemine said a flat fee becomes an attorney's property.

Justice Greg Guidry said, "That's not much of an excuse."

Myles said he paid back everything the disciplinary board asked him to pay back.

Knoll asked if Torry was practicing, and Myles said he was suspended from a job at Southern University.

Justice Marcus Clark said Torry lied to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

Clark said, "Why would he lie? He's a lawyer. He knows the box he was in."

Last, Ours recommended that the Justices suspend Daniel Becnel III, of LaPlace, for at least a year and a day.

The extra day matters because it means a lawyer must apply for reinstatement.

Becnel accepted $5,000 from Jody LaCombe to help his brother Owen LaCombe retract a guilty plea, but Becnel did little beyond filing a form the brother filled out.

Ours called for a full accounting of the refund Becnel owes.

The Supreme Court suspended Becnel for a year in 2005, over similar conduct.

Ours said Becnel accepted a fee with no experience in post conviction relief.

He said Becnel found no argument for the prisoner.

He said the brother sent a habeas corpus form and Becnel filed it in federal court.

Justice Jeannette Knoll said it sounded like malpractice rather than misconduct.

Ours said he failed to communicate with a client and instead filed a frivolous petition.

Knoll said, "He may have been negligent but it's hard to see an ethical violation."

Ours said he failed to refund an unearned fee and his prior discipline was similar.

He said Becnel knew the petition would be dismissed.

"That goes way beyond missing the filing of a lawsuit because it didn't get calendared," he said.

For Becnel, Dane Ciolino of New Orleans said Becnel drove to Napoleonville, read the file, and found nothing that would help his client.

Ciolino said, "To his discredit, he doesn't write to his client immediately."

He said Becnel shouldn't have filed the petition.

"It was dead on arrival," he said.

Guidry asked if he earned $5,000.

Ciolino said a flat fee is earned when paid, though a lawyer must refund a portion if the full fee is unreasonable.

"There is no doubt that he did a lot of work on this case," he said.

"I don't think any of it is unearned," he said.

He said Becnel admitted negligence and took responsibility for his actions.

He suggested nine to 12 months.

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

More News