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Ex-California State Bar director Joe Dunn facing disciplinary action

The state bar's charges stem from conduct in 2014 that supposedly involves misleading the board on proposed legislation and misspending bar funds on international travel.

(CN) — The California State Bar’s former executive director could lose his law license following accusations of moral turpitude.

Joe Dunn, erstwhile state senator who now lectures at UC Irvine School of Law, was hit with disciplinary charges for telling the State Bar's board in 2013 that he would not use agency money for a trip to Mongolia, and for misleading the board in 2014 about opposition to a bill he wanted the bar to support.

Dunn allegedly told the board there was “no known opposition” to Assembly Bill 852, which would have allowed the bar to bring civil action against those who practice law without a license. This statement was untrue, according to the charges.

Dunn was fired in 2014 after an investigation performed by law firm Munger, Tolles and Olson claimed he had misled the board and improperly used State Bar funds to finance the Mongolia trip.

He in turn filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the agency, asserting that his removal was in retaliation for reporting unethical activity within the organization. Among other things, Dunn alleged that former chief trial counsel Jayne Kim had removed 269 backlogged cases from internal records to make her office appear more productive.

A legal battle waged for three years before a state court judge confirmed an arbitrator’s order siding with the bar in 2017.

Attorneys Charles Berwanger and Edward McIntyre, both private practitioners in San Diego, are prosecuting the case.

Stacia Laguna, administrator for the Special Deputy Trial Counsel, said in a statement that the discipline complaint was initiated after arbitrator upheld Dunn’s termination, and that it was assigned to the bar’s program for outside prosecutors.

Laguna, who oversees the program, said cases like Dunn’s are handled by a limited pool of part-time attorneys who work other jobs. “As the new Administrator, I am working on improving processing timeliness in the program,” she said, adding that the court process can be protracted because of case conferences, settlement talks, amended charges, or requests that the case be put off, which are usually granted.

“Regardless, we believe this case reflects the principle that all California attorneys must adhere to their oath, to the law, and to the Rules of Professional Conduct,” Laguna said.

Dunn did not return a request for comment late Friday.

Dunn has already retained Mark Geragos, his former attorney in the whistleblower lawsuit, as well as Geragos & Geragos partner Ben Meiselas.

The charges come on the heels of outside law firm Halpern May's investigation into associates of Thomas Girardi, with whom the Los Angeles Times reported Dunn had socialized and whose connections allegedly got Dunn his position as executive director of the state bar.

The complaint against Dunn makes no mention of Girardi, however.

The State Bar said Friday that the purpose of the Halpern May investigation is to determine if Girardi’s connections or influence at the agency affected the handling of past discipline complaints against him.

Dunn’s attorney Geragos says he suspects a petty grudge behind the State Bar’s renewed interest in Dunn after all this time, posing a theory that implicates Munger Tolles and Olson along with a bar official whom Dunn fired for misconduct back when he was still executive director.

A letter from Geragos to the State Bar’s General Counsel paints a broad outline of the story, beginning with the firing of Jeff Dal Cerro by Dunn in 2012. In the intervening years, Dal Cerro became the administrator overseeing Dunn’s discipline case, and left the job just as Berwanger and McIntyre filed the charges.

“It has just been brought to our attention that the Administrator overseeing this matter during the precise time period of SDTC Berwanger’s and McIntyre’s decision to initiate charges against Senator Dunn was and is Jeff Dal Cerro,” Geragos writes. “Jeff Dal Cerro poses a direct conflict of interest to Senator Dunn, which should have warranted his disqualification from any involvement relating to this case; Mr. Dal Cerro would have been deemed to be prohibited from involvement in any matter involving Senator Dunn, had a satisfactory conflict check been performed.”

In his letter to the General Counsel, Geragos says he asked Berwanger and McIntyre several times to disclose who initiated the original complaint in 2017 and who re-opened it in 2020, but has been stonewalled thus far.

He spells out his concerns in a formal meet-and-confer request sent to Berwanger on July 5.

"To put it simply, a lawyer’s disbarment is being demanded by someone whom the lawyer fired," Geragos writes. "The fired person’s direct oversight to ensure fair procedure has a financial interest in the law firm whose report is being used to prosecute this lawyer.”

The letter, which is identified in its opening lines as a precursor to a lawsuit, requests that Berwanger and McIntyre remove themselves from the case and refrain from pursuing any further action against Dunn.

It also suggests another conflict of interest involving MTO and its co-managing partner Hailyn Chen, who chairs the State Bar’s regulation and discipline committee. In 2017, Chen was appointed to the Bar’s Board of Trustees by the California Supreme Court.

“A more blatant ethical conflict would be hard to construct,” Geragos writes, noting that the charges against Dunn are "replete with defamatory allegations and biased evidence derived from the underlying Munger, Tolles & Olsen (MTO) report."

In another letter to Berwanger, Geragos says it is clear from sworn deposition testimony in Dunn’s whistleblower lawsuit that a number of State Bar board members were aware that the Supreme Court had concerns about AB 852. In fact, Dunn’s draft memo was sent to Chief Trial Counsel Jayne Kim in advance of the board’s meeting on May 9, 2014, and she raised no issue at the time.

"It cannot reasonably be denied that, as between Mr. Dunn and Ms. Kim, it was Ms. Kim who had the more direct duty to speak up if she believed that the description of the status of AB 852 in the May 6, 2014 Memo was inaccurate in any way,” Geragos writes.

In short, Girardi could just be a red-herring.

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