MANSFIELD – After pleading guilty to a federal felony charge for filing a fraudulent tax return, former DeSoto District Attorney Richard Johnson was suspended from practicing law by the Louisiana Supreme Court on Friday, an order that precedes further disciplinary proceedings that may result in permanent disbarment.
“This is a federal felony conviction … and the baseline sanction for that is suspension," Dane Ciolino, legal ethics expert and professor at Loyola University Law School, told the Louisiana Record. "That doesn’t necessarily require disbarment. Some felony convictions do."
On Sept. 21, Johnson plead guilty to failing to report $78,717 in income on his 2011 tax return. Currently free on a $25,000 bond, he awaits criminal sentencing on Feb. 17. Filing false tax returns is a federal felony punishable by up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Johnson served one term as the District Attorney for DeSoto Parish. He lost his re-election bid to Gary Evans in November 2014. Later that month, he was subject to a federal grand jury probe that eventually led to his criminal charges.
The 2014 investigation was not the first time that Johnson has faced problems with the IRS. A federal tax lien filed in March said that he owed more than $100,000 in unpaid taxes from 2004 to 2011. Additionally, according to prior reports, Johnson’s spending habits while in office were questionable. He came under scrutiny for spending taxpayer dollars on travel, dining out and a motivational speaker with a criminal record.
Johnson is just one area lawyer subject to disciplinary action by the Louisiana Supreme Court. KTSB reported that Glay H. Collier III was also suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court for bankruptcy fraud. Because Johnson held public office as the district attorney, however, his offense is likely to be punished more severely than Collier’s.
“That [holding public office] is an aggravating factor that makes criminal conduct worse," Ciolino said. "The Supreme Court has said that in repeatedly evaluating sanctions appropriate for public officials (who) commit crimes, who are also lawyers."
Gregory Smith, professional ethics professor at LSU, told the Louisiana Record that because lawyers serving in public office hold the trust of the public, when they commit a crime, they violate the public trust.
“Their conduct is viewed with a greater level of scrutiny, which indicates that discipline might be more serious in areas where there is public trust involved," he said.
Smith said Johnson broke two provisions of Rule 8.4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys. First, Rule 8.4 says that it is misconduct for an attorney to commit a criminal act, especially one that reflects adversely on a lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer.
“When you violate the law, you are subject to discipline,” Smith said.
Additionally, Rule 8.4 says that it is misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. Failing to file a tax return also fits into this provision.
Ciolino and Smith both say that disciplinary action for all lawyers is important to the profession’s honor.
“It is important that there be a disciplinary system so that if a lawyer is not following the rules appropriate for the profession, there is a policeman," Smith said. "This is a way to monitor the conduct of lawyers in the profession and cleanse the profession from lawyers who commit misconduct if it is serious enough."
Ciolino said the disciplinary system for lawyers has proven effective.
“The disciplinary system does a very good job of dealing with lawyers who have been convicted of committing crimes,” Ciolino said.