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Jodi Stringer Discusses Ethical Issues Concerning the Oregon State Bar

Guest post by: Nabeal Twereet, writer for LawCrossing

The Oregon State Bar’s alleged ethical issues have now been brought to light in the following shocking interview. I spoke with Jodi Stringer about her allegations that the Oregon State Bar has selected poor watchdogs to be a part of their legal ethics committee, disciplinary board, as well as other ethical issues with the bar. Ms. Stringer believes that the Oregon State Bar did not appropriately vet their employees before recommending them to high positions. She explained that the bar was responsible for nominating Bryan Gruetter, chairman of their ethics committee, and Liane Inkster to their disciplinary board and that Robert Browning was also an ethical watchdog for the bar. She reported that the bar has opened a disciplinary investigation on Inkster and both Gruetter and Browning have been criminally sentenced due to their mistreatment of their clients’ funds. Although Ms. Stringer emphasized that she isn’t an attorney, she did pass the Oregon Bar exam in 2013. According to Ms. Stringer, she applied for admission to the bar in 2012, but she was not recommended for admission to the Oregon State Bar by a majority of the Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners. Ms. Stringer believes that her challenges in being admitted to the Oregon State Bar are due to her filing a Bar complaint against an attorney who might be connected to the bar.

Ms. Stringer, how are you connected to the Oregon State Bar?

I do not work for the Oregon State Bar. My only connections with the Oregon State Bar to date are 1) I have previously submitted a complaint to the Oregon State Bar regarding questionable conduct that I witnessed while working as a secretary in an Oregon attorney’s office; and 2) I applied for admission to the Oregon State Bar in November of 2012, passed the Oregon Bar exam in February, 2013, and became the subject of a contested admission case based on my ‘employment history,’ according to the State Bar. I have still not been admitted to the Oregon State Bar to this date.



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Do you plan on becoming a part of the bar’s legal ethics committee?

No. I have been treated very poorly by the Oregon State Bar, I know two other former employees of the Bar who were treated very poorly during their time at the Bar, and I cannot imagine myself ever working at the State Bar in any capacity.

What would you say to people who think you are bitter to the Oregon State Bar because they treated you poorly?

 

I would say they are absolutely right. I am bitter about the false statements they made to me and about the poor judgment they used with these individuals in their ranks.

Why do you think people at the Oregon State Bar have made unwise decisions in selecting poor watchdogs such as Bryan Gruetter and Robert Browning?

 

I believe the Oregon State Bar’s unwise decisions in selecting poor watchdogs is due to the State Bar not appropriately vetting their employees, pursuant to State Bar spokesperson Kateri Walsh’s own admission (in The Register-Guard article regarding Liane Inkster). I believe these inadequate vetting issues with Mr. Gruetter and Mr. Browning are indicative of larger, more disturbing patterns and practices of the Oregon State Bar, which are 1) that the Oregon State Bar seems to have adopted an almost blind deference to folks that either work for them (either in a volunteer capacity while serving on a Board committee or as a paid executive), or deference to folks that someone at the Oregon State Bar happens to personally know (good, old-fashioned nepotism); and 2) this seemingly blind deference that the State Bar accords to these individuals has resulted in the State Bar applying vastly different evaluation standards of folks that Bar employees personally know and with whom Bar employees are personally connected, as compared to the standards that the State Bar applies to the rest of the Oregon legal community.

Mr. Gruetter is a veteran personal injury lawyer and former chairman of the bar’s legal ethics committee. However, he is responsible for depleting the bar’s Client Security Fund. Forty-four of his clients filed claims in 2012 and 2013, noting that he owed them $1.44 million. Sylvia Stevens, the bar’s executive director said, “We’ve never seen anything like it before in terms of the number of claims or the size of the claims.” What do you think Mr. Gruetter’s punishment should be?

First, I believe Ms. Stevens’ statement regarding Mr. Gruetter’s conduct bears harsher scrutiny, since she also said of Mr. Gruetter’s conduct, ‘This was a total anomaly;’ Mr. Gruetter’s conduct was one of three other examples of former State Bar employees engaging in dishonest conduct in less than a year (the other 2 being Mr. Browning and Ms. Inkster), so it is quite clear to me that Mr. Gruetter’s conduct was not the ‘anomaly’ that Ms. Stevens classified it as being. She also said of Mr. Gruetter, ‘He was a really good guy,’ which doesn’t really seem an apt description for the conduct of a man who defrauded his clients, and again, another example of the type of blind deference that State Bar officials accord their own employees.

Second, I believe Mr. Gruetter’s punishment should not be restricted solely to the criminal sentence that he is currently serving, but that his professional and personal assets should be sold and the proceeds given to his victims. I also believe that Mr. Gruetter should never again be allowed to practice law in the State of Oregon, or any other jurisdiction in the United States, and that he should certainly never be allowed to hold any type of position with the Oregon State Bar again.

Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Mr. Gruetter, accusing him of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Prosecutors claim he “illegally diverted” more than $1.1 million of his client’s funds. Why do think Mr. Gruetter was selected chairman of the bar’s legal ethics committee? Should the Oregon State Bar have stricter guidelines when selecting moral people to its legal ethics committee?

 

I do not know why Mr. Gruetter was selected as chairman of the bar’s legal ethics committee, or his qualifications for such a position. I do believe the Oregon State Bar should have stricter guidelines when selecting individuals to serve not just on its legal ethics committee, but in any role at the Oregon State Bar, and one of those stricter guidelines needs to be in the form of conducting an actual, objective, professional investigation into a person. For example, in the case of Liane Inkster (formerly known as Liane Richardson) it appears from the content that appeared in The Register-Guard article that the Oregon State Bar simply allowed Ms. Inkster to self-report her employment history, without requiring her to submit the same type of Employment Character & Fitness form that new applicants for admission such as myself are required to submit to the State Bar. Had the Oregon State Bar required Ms. Inkster to withstand the same type of scrutiny regarding her previous jobs as the Bar requires of applicants for admission, the State Bar would have been fully aware of the issues surrounding Ms. Inkster’s termination from her job at a County. In fact, the State Bar should have already learned its lesson years ago regarding indiscriminately accepting attorneys’ self-serving statements about their conduct, when I reported to the State Bar in 2011 some highly questionable conduct that occurred in a law office where I had been employed, and the State Bar simply allowed the attorney about whom I complained to write a one-page letter on his own behalf simply denying he had done anything wrong. That was hardly what I would call an ‘investigation,’ but that was the end of it.

Robert Andrew Browning served as a municipal judge in two small towns and was heavily involved in the Oregon State Bar. He pleaded no contest to thirteen counts of first-degree criminal mistreatment against his deceased mother and mother-in-law. Prosecutors acknowledged that Mr. Browning moved money from both women’s bank accounts into his own accounts on several occasions. The money transfers and withdrawals ranged from $1,000 to $45,000. Mr. Browning did not spend the money on his mother and mother-in-law’s care. The Department of Justice said he wrongfully took more than $80,000 from the women. Does it surprise you that he was involved in the Oregon State Bar? What do you think Mr. Browning’s punishment should be?


From what I have seen of the policies and practices at the Oregon State Bar, such as the apparent blind deference it accords to certain folks, I am not surprised that he was involved in the Oregon State Bar, and frankly, I find it hard to believe that Mr. Browning did not exhibit any questionable characteristics or tendencies until he was done working at the Bar. However, it does make me very angry that he was involved with the Oregon State Bar’s rule-making committee and served as a judge while harboring these characteristics, while folks like myself are subjected to an extended moral character inquiry that has prevented me from obtaining a law license and interfered with my ability to earn a living as a lawyer. I believe Mr. Browning’s punishment should not be restricted to the criminal sentence that he is currently serving, but that his professional and personal assets should be sold and the proceeds given to his victims. I also believe that Mr. Browning should never again be allowed to practice law in the State of Oregon, or any other jurisdiction in the United States, that he should certainly never be allowed to hold any type of position with the Oregon State Bar again, and he should most certainly not be allowed to serve as a judge in any capacity ever again.

You said, “The State Bar recently and blindly nominated Liane Inkster f/k/a Liane Richardson to its Disciplinary Board despite Ms. Inkster’s termination for cause from Lane County for violating county policy and being ‘untruthful’ to an investigator that the county hired to look into her conduct.” Ms. Inkster is an attorney and member of the bar, which licenses and regulates attorney conduct. Do you think the State Bar didn’t do a thorough investigation before electing Ms. Inkster to its Disciplinary Board?

No, I do not believe the State Bar did a thorough investigation before electing Ms. Inkster to its Disciplinary Board, or before the Bar even allowed her to work for its Board in volunteer positions over the years, including conducting disciplinary investigations at the local level. I also find it very hard to believe that neither Mr. Gruetter, nor Mr. Browning, nor Ms. Inkster had displayed any of these questionable tendencies or characteristics until they stopped working for the Bar.

In addition to withdrawing Ms. Inkster’s name to the volunteer board, the bar is “opening up a disciplinary investigation” into her conduct at Lane County. Does this make you feel confident that the bar is doing everything they can in selecting ethical candidates to their Disciplinary Board?

No. From my experience with the Oregon State Bar, its statement that the Bar is conducting an investigation, without any mention of an independent committee or independent investigative audit also being conducted, does not make me feel assured in the least that the Bar is doing even a fraction of what they should be doing to select ethical candidates to their Disciplinary Board or to any other position at the Bar. An independent committee should be formed to audit the Oregon State Bar’s policies and practices, and the Oregon State Bar should not be left to its own devices.

While serving Lane County as an administrator, Ms. Inkster was fired by commissioners for increasing her pay in violation of county policy. The bar’s Disciplinary Board, whose members are nominated by the bar’s Board of Governors and appointed by the Oregon Supreme Court, acts as the trial panel in contested cases in which attorneys have been accused of unethical conduct. Shouldn’t the Oregon State Bar Disciplinary Board have known about her conduct before nominating her?

 

While I do not know firsthand the policies and practices of the Oregon State Bar, I know what my experience has been, and again, it seems to me that yes, the Oregon State Bar should have most certainly known about Ms. Inkster’s conduct before nominating her to the Disciplinary Board, or even allowing her to work for its Board in volunteer positions over the years. Again, however, if the Oregon State Bar would require its own employees / volunteers / candidates to withstand the same type of scrutiny as new applicants for admission such as myself have to endure, the Oregon State Bar certainly would have known about this conduct before nominating her, or allowing her to work in any capacity.

 

Kateri Walsh, a bar spokeswoman, claimed, “This one slipped through the cracks [Ms. Inkster]. We were unaware of some history that we should have been aware of. We are going to review the vetting process.” Do you believe the Oregon State Bar will improve their vetting system and will improve their selections in the future?


Based on my personal experience with the Oregon State Bar to date and the way they have handled my concerns regarding attorney conduct in the past, no, I do not believe the Oregon State Bar will improve their vetting system or will improve their selections in the future, if the Bar is left to its own devices and allowed to entirely oversee these ‘improvements’ to their own vetting system. I would feel more assured if an independent investigation / committee was convened that would galvanize the Bar into action.

You stated, “When the Chairwoman of the Oregon State Bar’s Board of Bar Examiners, Renee Starr, apparently only has her job because of her relationship to state senator Bruce Starr; when Oregon State Bar Admissions Coordinator Charles Schulz interfered with the administration of the February 2013 Bar exam by engaging in a lengthy and loud cell phone call in the presence of the test-takers (including myself!); and when the Oregon State Bar allows licensed attorneys to regularly bounce checks even though people seeking admission to the State Bar have to demonstrate that they are financially responsible.” How would you like to see these issues resolved with the Oregon State Bar?


Regarding Renee Starr, if it is true that she is related to state senator Bruce Starr, I would like her and the Oregon State Bar to disclose that fact openly and honestly on its website, as well in the local media so that the community is aware of the nature and extent of her relationship with state senator Bruce Starr, as well as to disclose the attributes that qualify Renee Starr for her job.

Regarding Charles Schulz’ interference with the administration of the February 2013 Oregon State Bar exam at The Monarch Hotel in Clackamas, Oregon, I would like for Mr. Schulz to apologize for his conduct, for the Oregon State Bar to apologize for allowing this to happen, and for him to have at least some disciplinary mark in his personnel file regarding this. I reported Mr. Schulz’ conduct to his supervisors in October of 2013, and his supervisors waited almost 3 months to address my concerns before blasting me with an irate letter implying that I was lying about the whole thing. This, again, is another example of the type of blind deference that the Oregon State Bar accords to its own employees.

Regarding the financial irresponsibility of attorneys licensed in Oregon who bounce checks or who otherwise become delinquent on their financial responsibilities, I think the Oregon State Bar – at the very least – should be conducting random audits of licensed attorneys’ accounting books and records each year. Furthermore, all attorneys licensed in Oregon should have to report to the Oregon State Bar each year on some type of affidavit or declaration that they have been financially responsible, or the details of whatever financial delinquency they have found themselves facing. Again, applicants for admission like myself have to complete all of this information before we can even get a license in Oregon, so attorneys who are licensed in Oregon should be held to the same standards to maintain their licenses and to serve as a further check about their ‘moral character,’ which the Oregon State Bar seems to be so concerned about for select folks.

You noted that “A top-down investigation needs to be commenced immediately into the policies and practices at the Oregon State Bar. At the very least, the utter lack of supervision of its own people and practices is gross negligence; at worst, it is gross abuse of authority.” Even if there is a top-down investigation, do you think these problems discussed above will be addressed and that the policies and practices at the Oregon State Bar will improve considerably in the future?


From what I have seen in my time living in Oregon, no, a top-down investigation will probably do nothing to address these policies and practices at the Oregon State Bar, or even to improve anything at the Bar. However, at the very least, I would hope that the Oregon State Bar’s authority to conduct character and fitness investigations would be immediately suspended and all authority to conduct such investigations be instead deferred to the National Conference of Bar Examiners – after all, if the Oregon State Bar was unable to detect the unsavory qualities of Mr. Gruetter, Mr. Browning, and Ms. Inkster within their own ranks, why should Oregon residents feel confident that the Oregon State Bar is capable of detecting those qualities in the remainder of the legal professionals in Oregon?

Do you plan on becoming an attorney?

 

Not in the state of Oregon.

What do you plan on doing in the future?

 

I am not leaving Oregon because my family lives here. I thought about suing the Oregon State Bar, but I am not in a financial position to do so. In Oregon, the losing party owes attorney fees and costs. I am disappointed.

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