Tuesday, March 19, 2002
Former Attorney Hunt, Seeking Reinstatement, Tells Bar Court He Neglected Clients Because of Alcohol
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Former groundbreaking Los Angeles civil rights lawyer A. Thomas Hunt testified yesterday that his drinking caused him to neglect client calls and mail, ignore warnings from the State Bar, abandon client cases and, on one occasion, commit perjury.
On the first day of trial on his petition for reinstatement to the State Bar, 10 years after his resignation with discipline charges pending, Hunt, 62, acknowledged hurting a succession of clients in the early 1990s whose cases were lost due to his failure to prosecute them.
But he insisted that he actually gave the very people who filed claims with the State Bar client security fund good value for their money.
“I’m not in any way trying to excuse my misconduct,” Hunt said. “That’s not what’s going on here. But it’s hardly a nefarious scheme....As bad as it was, I wasn’t doing something that can be considered stealing.”
The ex-attorney’s class action suits virtually rewrote the hiring manuals of the Los Angeles Police Department and other public agencies and private employers, but he said he was overcome by alcoholism when the political mood of the nation—and the judiciary—changed in the 1980s.
Hunt agreed to resign in 1993 on charges that included practicing while suspended for failure to pay bar dues. He was jailed briefly on a contempt citation for failing to repay his ex-clients.
He was later indicted for fraud, but charges were dismissed when prosecutors failed to prove their assertion that Hunt never intended to do any work for the clients whose money he took.
Hunt applied for readmission to the State Bar last July, following a decade-long odyssey through state and federal courts in which he was often followed by a host of angry ex-clients.
His chief antagonist has been former high school teacher Howard Bennett, who paid Hunt $6,000 in the early 1990s to represent him in an age discrimination suit against the Culver Unified School District The suit was lost when Hunt failed to oppose a motion to dismiss.
In the course of pressing a malpractice suit against Hunt, Bennett was contacted by more than 100 people who said they, too, were Hunt “victims.” Bennett kept them informed of Hunt’s court appearance dates.
Hunt later won a rare finding of actual innocence in his criminal matter. He also sued Bennett for malicious prosecution, and his wife sued Bennett for slander.
Hunt’s appeal is still pending in the dismissal of his malicious prosecution action.
Attorney Mark Werksman, who represented Hunt in the criminal prosecutions, is handling the readmission petition.
Werksman told State Bar Court Judge Paul Bacigalupo that Hunt was a “great attorney” who became crippled by alcoholism when judges appointed by President Ronald Reagan and California Gov. George Deukmejian began handing him one courtroom defeat after another.
“He was a civil rights lawyer in the 1980s, which almost speaks for itself,” Werksman said, describing how Hunt would devote himself to a case and, even upon winning, would be awarded “only a pittance” in attorney fees.
Such contingency fees were Hunt’s only means of support, Werksman said. Later, Hunt testified that after good years with a public interest firm and with a firm of his own he “went to the other side” to get a big salary at a firm that represented employers. But he said he left after 10 months because he couldn’t stomach working against employees.
He instead went solo, but suffered from fewer fee awards and from a stroke his wife suffered.
Werksman introduced into evidence dozens of letters and declarations from Los Angeles “legal luminaries,” including Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Trott and the heads of the city’s largest law firm employment sections, attesting to Hunt’s good moral character and contributions to the community.
“It was the disease of alcoholism that brought him down,” Werksman said. “He took his last drink in November 1992, and has remained sober.”
“He was a great attorney, and he will be a great attorney again once he is readmitted.”
State Bar counsel Margaret Warren introduced 78 exhibits, including a host of checks drawn on the client security fund because of Hunt’s actions.
“We ask the court not to be distracted by non-issues,” Warren told Bacigalupo. “Has he indeed overcome the moral shortcomings that I think the record will show surrounded his resignation?”
The trial is expected to last through the end of the week.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company