DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday suspended the license of a Cedar Rapids lawyer for violating rules of professional conduct by stealing money from his employer.
Curtis Den Beste, who received his law license in 2000, agreed to deposit all client fees into a trust account or the general law firm account of his employer — Howes Law Firm in Cedar Rapids, according to the ruling.
Den Beste would then be paid 50 percent of the fees he earned and Howes would retain the remainder to cover overhead and other expenses.
Den Beste, beginning in 2015, accepted cash payments from some clients and kept those funds for himself, instead of depositing them in the general account, the ruling states.
His “pattern of misconduct” was discovered in March 2017 when he told the firm’s accounting manager to “write off” a number of accounts he deemed “uncollectable.”
The manager called the clients in an attempt to collect payment, and some informed her they had paid Den Beste directly, according to the ruling. Steve Howes confronted him and he admitted to the theft and was fired.
Den Beste agreed to self-report his theft to the court’s disciplinary board and to provide how much he owed Howes, the ruling shows. He retained $18,500, which meant he owed Howes about $9,200.
According to the ruling, a Client Security Commission auditor investigated the issue and found Den Beste’s figures were accurate. However, he also said Howes’ “record keeping” didn’t provide any way to verify if the “amount reported by Den Beste as stolen is accurate.”
The court’s attorney disciplinary board filed the complaint and found Den Beste violated the rules of professional conduct and his conduct “constitutes” theft under Iowa law.
The court’s grievance commission recognized some mitigating circumstances such as Den Beste self-reporting his wrongdoing and voluntarily planning to reimburse Howes, the ruling shows. No clients were harmed financially. Howes submitted a letter to the board, stating he was the only one harmed by the theft and otherwise provided positive remarks about Den Beste’s professional skills and character.
The commission recommended a four-month license suspension for Den Beste.
Chief Justice Mark Cady, writing for the majority, said Den Beste committed theft by retaining the funds, and it’s conduct that “reflects adversely on his fitness to practice law.” Den Beste’s false statements to the firm’s accounting manager is “dishonest behavior,” he said.
The court considered stiffer sanctions, stating there has always been a distinction between client theft and law firm theft, with tougher sanctions when lawyers steal from clients because clients usually are in an “extremely vulnerable” position.
“Yet, a lawyer who acts dishonestly toward an employer raises serious questions of whether the lawyer has the necessary integrity to practice law,” Cady said.
It may be time to “ratchet up” the disciplinary sanctions for non-client theft, but this case “may not be the appropriate” case to start, Cady said.
In a partial dissent, Justice David Wiggins said Den Beste stipulated that his embezzlement qualified as second-degree theft, a felony. The court has repeatedly revoked attorney’s licenses when they steal funds entrusted to them, he noted.
“Plain and simple, Den Beste admitted to stealing someone else’s money several times,” Wiggins said.
He said the state would have charged a non-lawyer for embezzling more than $9,000, but Den Beste avoids criminal punishment and the court gives him an “insignificant disciplinary sanction.”
Wiggins then asked if the only reason Den Beste wasn’t charged is because he is a lawyer. The public “deserves and demands more than apathy from us,” he wrote, adding that revoking Den Beste’s license would provide the “proper protection” to the public.
First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said Friday the case was never referred to the office.
The court ruled to “indefinitely” suspend Den Beste’s license with no possibility of reinstatement for four months.
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