The prohibition against aiding clients in carrying out crimes and frauds has been in the news lately, in connection with the quandary that lawyers find themselves in when attempting to help clients in the marijuana industry — whose conduct may be legal under state law, while remaining illegal under federal law. (We’ve blogged about it previously, here and here.) In this environment, it is useful to consider just what constitutes assisting a client’s crime or fraud, as the Ohio Supreme Court did last week in disbarring a lawyer who helped a divorce client hide assets from her spouse.

Anatomy of a fraud

The charge of violating Ohio’s version of Model Rule 1.2(d) arose out of the lawyer’s participation in a scheme to conceal his client’s marital assets from the client’s husband. Over a three-year period, before and during the divorce proceedings, the client paid the lawyer over $850,000 — not for legal services, but to hide the money from her husband. The client would withdraw cash from her business or personal accounts, and then write a new check, typically for less than $10,000, that she made payable to the lawyer. The lawyer deposited the funds into two client trust accounts.

Eventually, the lawyer wire-transferred more than $800,000 to a Swiss bank account in which the client had the entire beneficial interest. A portion of the funds were also transferred to another account in the Turks and Caicos Islands during the divorce proceedings.

Clear and convincing evidence

The disciplinary panel found that the client’s practice of transferring the funds in small increments was evidence that the client purposely structured the transactions to fly under the radar of banking laws aimed at catching larger illicit money schemes.

Based on requests for admissions that the lawyer failed to respond to, the disciplinary panel also found that the lawyer had agreed to put the money in his client trust account in order to hide the client’s marital assets.

The panel found that the relator had established a violation of Rule 1.2(d) by clear and convincing evidence.

In addition, in a separate count, the panel considered the lawyer’s alleged neglect of another legal matter, in which he accepted $750 to file two civil complaints on behalf of a condo association, but failed to do so. The panel found a violation of Ohio’s version of Model Rule 1.3, requiring a lawyer to act with reasonable diligence in representing a client.

Based on the rule violations, the panel recommended permanent disbarment, the full Board of Professional Conduct adopted the recommendation, and the state supreme court agreed.

Clear cut cases

The lawyer in this case answered the disciplinary complaint against him, but failed to participate further in the administrative proceedings, including failing to respond to requests for admission. That certainly doomed his case and paved the way for the professional death sentence that the supreme court confirmed. But the facts here appeared clear-cut. Unlike the grey area that lawyers are in when they want to represent their medical marijuana clients, the lawyer here was in a situation that was starkly black-and-white .

Discerning the boundaries of Rule 1.2(d)’s prohibition is sometimes hard — but sometimes, it is easy.