Arlington lawyer gets year in prison
An Arlington County lawyer who defrauded the parents of special needs children was sentenced Friday to a year in prison by an Arlington Circuit Court judge.
Howard D. Deiner, 54, specialized in representing parents in the wrenching process of challenging local school boards' handling of their children. Four different parents testified at Deiner's trial in October that Deiner told them he was a lawyer, and that he could appeal their cases to the courts if they lost at the schools' administrative level.
One parent said he hired Deiner after having already lost at the administrative level, specifically to appeal in federal court.
But Deiner had allowed his bar license to lapse from January 2006 to April 2009, and he was not legally able to file court actions. Still he did file a federal suit on behalf of that family, and forged another lawyer's signature on the pleading, that lawyer testified.
And though he was not required to be a lawyer at the schools' administrative level, many parents said he simply didn't do a very good job for them -- or any job, in some cases -- and wouldn't return phone calls, e-mails or their case files.
Deiner was arrested in November 2009 on charges of felony fraud and misdemeanor practicing law without a license.
An Arlington grand jury in July added three more fraud counts, but "we could have brought multiple more complaints and cases of people [victims] who are similarly situated," Arlington Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney R. Frances O'Brien said Friday.
At Deiner's trial in October, it was revealed that the D.C. Bar, where Deiner had been licensed, had warned him in June 2008 that he was practicing without a license. The Virginia State Bar, which had been receiving complaints about Deiner, warned him in September 2008, as did the Arlington police. A D.C. Bar official also testified that Deiner's license had been suspended for failure to pay dues in 2002, 2003 and 2005, which also caused its suspension from 2006 to 2009.
In addition to being unlicensed, O'Brien noted that Deiner did not properly handle his clients' funds with an escrow account, instead depositing the retainers he was paid "and taking it right out." Deiner testified at trial that he wasn't familiar with the escrow process, used by virtually all lawyers to separate clients' payments from other business accounts.
Deiner also testified he was not familiar with the process of being admitted to the federal bar or filing documents in federal court. He has not been prosecuted for apparently filing a forged signature on the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
That signature was "the icing on the cake" for Chief Arlington Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr., who said in October that had convinced him Deiner's conduct was more than just negligence, and convicted him of the one misdemeanor and four fraud counts after a day-long bench trial.
In 2009, Newman also imposed a default judgment of $13,552 for the fees paid by one family to Deiner, and added another $100,000 in punitive damages against Deiner, which he has not paid.
"He started to believe the lie he created," O'Brien told the judge Friday, "and he convinced these people to part with tens of thousands of dollars...The emotional needs of the families involved, and the stress put on them, were tremendous. They looked to him to be a champion, and he lied to them and he lied to you."
Deiner's lawyer, James Clark, said Deiner "clearly didn't set out to hurt anybody. He set out to help these folks." He noted that Deiner took on special needs children as a specialty because he has one of his own.
Clark also said Deiner had brought a certified check for $36,000 to repay the fees he received from the four families who were victims in the case, and he handed the check to O'Brien.
Deiner stood and expressed his regrets. "I want to apologize to the court and apologize to the victims," Deiner said. "Every day, I wake up feeling awful. I'm trying to understand what I did. I understand the impact it's had. I feel awful. I truly apologize to everyone."
Newman said, "The practice of law is one where there are standards that have to be met," and that members of the public expect lawyers to maintain basic levels of training and expertise. Newman noted that Deiner had chosen to specialize in an area involving children, and that listening to parents testify about their frustrations with Deiner "was very difficult."
Newman sentenced Deiner to four years on each of the fraud counts and one year on the misdemeanor, all to run concurrently, and he suspended three years of each fraud sentence. He allowed Deiner to remain free on bond and surrender on Jan. 31.
| January 7, 2011; 2:04 PM ET
Categories: Arlington, Financial Crimes, From the Courthouse, Tom Jackman, Updates
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