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Convicted of grand theft, Orange County lawyer resigns

A San Bernardino attorney who was convicted last month of embezzling more than $100,000 from the Orange County law firm where he once worked has resigned from the State Bar. STEVEN PAUL COLEMAN [#196142], 51, also faced 29 counts of ethical misconduct filed by the bar in six different cases unrelated to the embezzlement.

Coleman was ordered held without bail following convictions for grand theft, preparing false accounting records and two counts of tax fraud, with enhancements for excessive taking and aggravated white collar crime. He was scheduled to be sentenced late last month and faced up to seven years in prison.

Coleman, who was admitted to the bar in 1998, faced professional misconduct charges within 33 months of beginning his legal career. But he already had been convicted of bank fraud and his insurance license was revoked in another state for taking client money without providing any services.

While attending law school, he worked as the office manager for Yorba Linda attorney Daniel Conforti, where according to Deputy District Attorney William Overtoom, he wrote checks to himself over a two-year period. Overtoom said the firm ultimately collapsed as a result of the many cases Coleman accepted without Conforti's knowledge.

He took the money to support a "higher lifestyle, but he's clearly a thief," Overtoom said. "He hasn't gotten any better. He's a danger to the community." The prosecutor said he presented evidence that Coleman took more than $184,000 from Conforti.

State Bar investigator John Noonen testified that while Coleman was out on bail, he continued to take clients' money without performing any work.

The no-bail order was issued, Overtoom said, because "the court felt he was a danger to the public and a flight risk."

Coleman, who represented himself at trial, said he was entitled to the money because he worked long hours and assumed numerous responsibilities. He also contended that Conforti knew he was taking the money as compensation.

The State Bar's first proceeding against Coleman began in 2001, when it filed charges against him in six different cases. Two months later, it filed another set of charges in two cases, and more charges were filed about a year later. The allegations included failure to perform legal services competently, return client files, refund unearned fees, communicate with clients, deposit client funds in a trust account, promptly pay out client funds or cooperate with the bar's investigation and four counts of moral turpitude.

Coleman stipulated to misconduct in the first proceeding, received a 75-day actual suspension and was put on three years of probation. A week after the actual suspension ended, a new client "walked into (his) office and he recommenced his habitual failure to perform, communicate with clients and return unearned fees," bar lawyer Charles T. Calix wrote in a settlement conference statement.

The ongoing misconduct led to a second proceeding alleging six more sets of charges, and a third proceeding to revoke Coleman's probation, which was granted along with a one-year suspension on March 17, 2003.

The client who walked into his office that day had an emergency: She had a child support lien against her ex-husband, who was trying to sell his home, which was in foreclosure. She needed to place a lien on the home to insure that her child support payments would be recovered. The client paid Coleman $1,635 as an advance fee after he promised he would handle all necessary paperwork and court dates. However, the client's numerous phone calls went unanswered, as did her eventual demands for a refund of her fees. Coleman finally returned her fee, the same day he filed his opposition to the bar's motion to revoke his probation in the earlier cases. The opposition claimed the client was not harmed, in part because he had refunded her fees.

In a complaint for breach of contract case which sought to recover almost $60,000 his client claimed to be owed, the case ultimately was dismissed and the defendants were awarded attorney's fees of nearly $20,000. Coleman did not inform the client about either development; as a result, the company's contractor's license was suspended for failing to report the judgment to the state. The company was unable to conduct business in California and lost at least $25,000 in revenue.

In a bankruptcy case dismissed because Coleman failed to file about 10 required schedules, he made misleading statements to the court, he declared in a public document that his client was suffering from alcohol abuse and had family problems (facts that were irrelevant to the case), and he was ordered to refund most of his fee when the judge ruled it was excessive.

In a personal injury case that also ultimately was dismissed, Coleman's client was ordered to pay $2,441 in attorney's fees to the defendant. Coleman did not tell her the case was dismissed. He did not tell her a settlement offer had been made, he repeatedly postponed deposition dates but then misled the judge by alleging he was not responsible for the continuances, and failed to notify the client about the depositions.

He failed to finalize a divorce matter for a year, billed the client $900 for nine in-office consultations which did not take place, and took no action to freeze accounts he located that contained $200,000.

In a pre-trial statement submitted to the State Bar Court last January, Calix said the bar was seeking Coleman's disbarment because he "habitually disregards the interest of his clients and fails to communicate with such clients, which constitute acts of moral turpitude." He also accused Coleman of "habitual dishonesty."

Coleman was ordered inactive in March in order to protect the public.

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