THE ‘PARALEGAL’ PAROLEE
Bar Association should worry about fake lawyers
The saga of Richard Wayne Ben-Neth, who started an “attorney-referral services” business in Tacoma while in a prison work-release facility, and dispensed legal advice as a parolee for nearly two years before authorities acted, should cause corrections and bar officials to do more than wince.
Ben-Neth is back behind bars, but several clients of his Attorney’s Legal Services Inc., which was listed in the Tacoma Yellow Pages, are out thousands of dollars. His caper, detailed last week by Times reporter Eric Nadler, should have been nipped in the bud before much damage was done.
Initially, Ben-Neth said he was only providing paralegal services – such things as investigation and research. No license is needed for that. The state should require that paralegals working on their own be licensed.
In the end, Ben-Neth pleaded guilty of the unauthorized practice of law, a misdemeanor.
His parole from a 1981 sentence for theft and check fraud was revoked a week ago by the state Board of Prison Terms and Paroles, which found that he had pretended to be a lawyer, misappropriated his clients’ money, traveled out of state without permission, owned a handgun, and allegedly attempted to sexually assault a secretary who complained about him. Only after that secretary’s complaint did the wheels of justice begin churning.
One bilked client had complained as early as February 1985 to the state Bar Association and later to the Pierce County prosecutor.
The bar’s response was that it oversees real attorneys – not fake ones. It took no action.
The police investigation didn’t start for months. And the Department of Corrections begged it all off to understaffing.
As excuses go, those were 0-for-3.
Ben-Neth got into trouble in 1981 with probation officers in King County for unauthorized practice of law while on probation. Yet, two years later, his parole officer allowed him to start work as an independent paralegal in Tacoma. That’s just not an understaffing problem. That’s horrible judgment.
The Bar Association has been urged to file civil injunctions against such people as Ben-Neth so that prosecutors can move before clients suffer extensive losses. But Wayne Wilson, bar spokesman, said the bar will not try to supervise anyone who is not a licensed attorney.
There’s lots of room for rethinking there. Fake attorneys, left to operate even after bilking complaints have been made, certainly ought to be a bar concern.