A disbarred attorney sitting in judgment of police seems a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse. Yet that was the case in Baltimore up until two days ago. What is wrong with this picture?
Charles G. Byrd Jr., who was hired in February to lead reviews of discrimination and police abuse claims as the deputy director of Baltimore’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, abruptly resigned Tuesday after The Baltimore Sun began asking questions about his disbarment last year.
Byrd “decided to resign because he didn’t want his past to be a distraction to the important work of the Office of Civil Rights,” said the office’s director, Jill P. Carter, on Tuesday. She declined to elaborate, and Byrd could not be reached for comment.
Perhaps the person who hired a disbarred attorney to this position should be the next to resign? After all, an attorney needs to work hard to get disbarred. And that appears to be the case here.
Byrd was disbarred in April 2017 for misappropriating funds in his private law firm’s attorney trust account “for his personal use and benefit,” according to court records.
Carter defended Byrd as recently as Monday, when she said she was “well aware” of his disbarment when she hired him but did not believe it prevented him from serving as her deputy, reported The Baltimore Sun.
“Being barred is not a requirement of the job,” she’d said, and Byrd “brings a whole lot of experience that we needed. He’s actually been a major asset and one of the most valuable additions since I’ve gotten here.”
Huh? Is this under the theory, “It takes a thief to catch a thief?”
Carter said she believes “in second chances.”
All right, most people do. But not in a position like this Ms. Carter!
Byrd also downplayed his disbarment in an interview on Monday, saying none of his former clients lost money in the matter.
Oh, so he only stole from his friends and partners? Perhaps that is an overlooked mitigating factor on my part!
He said he consented to disbarment because he was the firm’s managing partner and was planning to retire anyway.
Where? On a far away exotic island with the firms funds?
Benfred Alston, Byrd’s former partner and fellow University of Baltimore law school graduate, with whom he started the Alston & Byrd firm in 1991, could not be reached for comment.
Carter was named Monday to a seat in the Maryland Senate to finish the term of Nathaniel T. Oaks, who resigned, but she said she will remain director of the city’s civil rights office.
As deputy director, Byrd oversaw both the Civilian Review Board, which hears citizen complaints about Baltimore police officers, and the Community Relations Commission, which investigates claims of discrimination in employment, public accommodation, housing, education, and health and welfare services.
Byrd was nearing 30 years in the law profession upon his disbarment, having represented both plaintiffs and defendants in a broad array of discrimination lawsuits and other civil matters.
As with cops, once corruption is discovered, maybe it’s appropriate to review his body of work—you know, just to toss a few cases out now that we know he’s willing to take what does not belong to him, i.e. misappropriation, which is a nice term for “thief.”
According to The Baltimore Sun report, Byrd has represented victims of excessive force and false arrest by police, and defended Baltimore police officers against such claims.
This is interesting. Admittedly, I personally do not know Byrd or Carter. But I’d like to hear the perception of officers from both sides of the coin.
Byrd also is a former vice president of the National Bar Association, the nation’s largest network of predominantly African-American attorneys and judges. Carter said he came highly recommended by many prominent figures in Baltimore — including many in the legal profession.
Both Carter and Byrd noted Monday that his disbarment did not involve criminal charges against him.
So the question is why not?
“There were no criminal components to the disbarment, no criminal charges were filed,” Carter said. “So there was no reason he couldn’t be hired.”
Are you kidding? Is Carter so ethically challenged that she doesn’t see the conflict? She is proving her own disqualifiers by continuing to defend the decision to hire the man.
Since Byrd was disbarred “by consent,” his case was not litigated through the courts and a full description of what happened was not entered in the public record. However, a joint petition filed in the matter by Byrd and the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland outlined the basic allegations in the case.
The petition states that Byrd “acknowledged that he was primarily responsible for the management and reconciliation of his firm’s attorney trust account, and that he misappropriated funds belonging to his law firm for his personal use and benefit.”
Such accounts hold client funds that may be due to attorneys eventually but haven’t been earned yet, such as payments clients make to retain attorneys or settlements won in cases and awaiting distribution.
The petition states that, to the court’s understanding, at least $50,000 in firm funds were misappropriated, and that Byrd understood that “sufficient evidence could be produced to sustain allegations of professional misconduct” were the matter to move forward in court.
Moreover, it says the Bank of America alerted the Office of Bar Counsel of an overdraft on the trust account, which prompted an investigation.
Does this sound like someone who should sit in judgment of police officers? Not to me!
Robert Rubinson, a University of Baltimore law professor with expertise in the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct and in ethical issues related to the law profession generally, said he was not familiar with Byrd or the disbarment case against him, but that allegations of mismanagement of trust accounts are taken extremely seriously by the bar.
“Financial management of client and other funds that don’t belong to the lawyer is absolutely crucial for attorney practice,” Rubinson said. “Given that client funds need to be maintained in these accounts and a detailed accounting needs to be maintained as well, if there is an overdraft, something is wrong.”
Steven Best, an attorney and founding partner of the Ohio-based Affinity Consulting, which advises firms on management practices, said he advises clients to be extremely careful when managing such accounts.
Best said an attorney overdrawing on such an account would be “a big no-no.”
“They have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients, and they have to maintain the trust account fastidiously,” he said. “It is nothing to be joked about. It is to be taken very seriously.”
Carter said Monday that she had a “limited understanding of the specifics” surrounding the case against Byrd.
Yet she hired him anyway?
She said Byrd provided valuable expertise in assessing police abuse complaints, and played a critical role in negotiating the office’s “rightful place” in discussions about police reform with the city and the Justice Department.
The parties are under a federal consent decree mandating reforms, including robust civilian oversight of the police department, and Carter envisions the Civilian Review Board having an expanded role moving forward.
Nevertheless, with hires like this we’ll need another Civilian Review Board to investigate the current Civilian Review Board. Perhaps it can be compiled of terminated police officers, since that is like being “disbarred.” After all, Carter believes in second chances, right?
– Jim McNeff, editor-in-chief, Law Enforcement Today