VILLE PLATTE – Assistant District Attorney Timmy Fontenot resigned last month from his position in the Evangeline Parish District Attorney’s Office.
The resignation on Jan. 26, which District Attorney Trent Brignac accepted immediately, comes as a result of several charges against Fontenot stemming from his handling of cases in his private practice.
Robert Westley, LOCHEF professor of legal ethics and professional responsibility at Tulane University Law School, explained some of the allegations against Fontenot.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s accused of dismissing his clients’ lawsuit without their knowledge or consent in 2008, then he forged their signature on settlement documents, then he waited five years before he distributed some of the settlement funds to them," Westly told the Louisiana Record. "And then he didn’t distribute all of the money that the clients were owed under the settlement that he made. He also is accused of failing to put his contingency fees in writing, and he cashed checks from his client trust account, presumably for personal expenses."
The charges have come as a result of complaints made against Fontenot with the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) by Fontenot’s clients Francis and Ellen Ortego and attorney Ian McDonald, who defended the Ortegos 2008 lawsuit.
The ODC has charged Fontenot with violating seven different rules for attorneys, including failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client; failing to keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; failing to have a contingency fee in writing; writing and negotiating trust account checks made payable to "cash;" committing actions that negatively reflect adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects; engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation; and violating or attempting to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct.
According to ODC documents, Fontenot is not disputing the facts of the allegations, admitting that he acted improperly. He has said that the reason for his actions was that he had been undergoing a long, bitter and costly divorce from his wife.
Regardless of the reasons for his actions, the allegations against Fontenot are serious.
“Not only are there ethical violations charged but if these things are accurate, he’d have criminal liability as well," Westley said. "Because taking money from the client trust account for personal expenses and keeping client money without their knowledge, that rises to the level of a possible misappropriation, which is a crime."
Westley said he can't recall an instance in which an attorney made an unauthorized misappropriation of client funds and wasn't disbarred.
"So he’s headed for disbarment just based on that one count alone,” he said. “And then he also has to now be concerned about criminal charges, as well. And then there’ll probably on top of that be a civil suit by his clients for malpractice, so he’s going to have to pay back all of their damages to them.”
Fontenot has faced disciplinary action for misconduct in the past. In 2011 he was found by the Supreme Court of Louisiana to have “failed to communicate with a client, charged an excessive fee, and made misrepresentations.”
At that time he was put on a two-year probationary period.