■ Volume 27
december 9, 2013 ■ $8.50
Expertly focused. Widely acclaimed. 2013 state and national General Excellence winner
A mystery and a mess Trustee tends to cases of missing attorney who faced discipline, legal malpractice
Concussions suit uses ‘unique opportunity’ Until Jan. 1, victims of occupational diseases may seek redress in court By Scott Lauck
Attorney Kenneth Carp and temp worker Diana Skeeter work on Thursday to organize the office of missing St. Peters attorney Jeffrey Witt. A judge appointed Carp as trustee at the request of the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. Carp’s job is to get files and trust account money back to clients. Photo by Karen Elshout
By Heather Cole
A St. Louis-area attorney who helped solve one mystery is at the center of another — his own disappearance. A client found attorney Jeffrey Witt’s St. Peters office unlocked, unattended and in disarray in late October and called police. St. Louis County police found him safe at home at that time, but his ex-wife reported him missing about a month later, according to police and news reports. As police investigate, recently appointed trustee Kenneth Carp is starting to mop up the mess in Witt’s practice after the Missouri Supreme Court temporarily suspended Witt’s license. St. Charles County Circuit Court Presiding
The year of lawyers in trouble
Judge Rick Zerr appointed veteran attorney Carp as trustee Wednesday at the request of the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. Carp’s job is to get files and Attorney Jeffrey Witt left behind at trust account monleast 62 pending ey back to the clicases when he disap- ents they belong to. peared. Witt, 39, is a father of five, according to a report on KTVI Fox News. He also is a former Marine, said Louis Basso, an attorney who knows Witt. In addition to his family, Witt left behind distressed clients with at least 62 pending cases. Witt’s troubles before he
disappeared included a pending disciplinary case, a legal malpractice lawsuit that ended with a $950,000 judgment now on the doorstep of his insurer, and a recent arrest for driving under the influence. Witt is known for fingering his former client, Milton “Skip” Ohlsen III, in a 2008 Clayton garage bombing, but there’s no indication his disappearance is linked to that case. Ohlsen is serving a 20-year sentence for the bombing that badly injured attorney John Gillis. Allegations in the discipline case range from the appalling to the odd. A client lost her home and other clients’ cases languished when Witt took little action, OCDC attorneys said in [ SE E W I T T O N P AG E 11]
The Witt case is far from the only one in which a lawyer or judge got into trouble in 2013. Our list highlights 13 other notable cases from this year, including allegations of murder, armed robbery and fraud. PAGE 10
Five former Kansas City Chiefs suing the team over brain injuries hope to take advantage of a fast-closing glitch in Missouri’s workers’ compensation law. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Jackson County Circuit Court, the players — Alexander Louis Cooper, Leonard Griffin, Joseph Phillips, Kevin Porter and The lead attorney for Christopher Martin, the plaintiffs, Ken Mcas well as Martin’s Clain, says the team wife, Yolanda had helped fund research that obscured Thompson-Martin the link between — allege that rerepeated concussions peated concussions and lingering brain led them to develop injuries. post-concussion syndrome and latent brain disease, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The suit makes claims for a period between Aug. 31, 1987, and March 29, 1993, during which there was no collective bargaining agreement in effect. According to the petition, there is no basis for federal jurisdiction because federal labor law is not applicable to plaintiffs’ claims and there is no collective bargaining agreement to interpret. The suit alleges that the team was negligent for failing to provide a safe work environment. But more importantly, at least for the plaintiffs’ legal argument, the suit also alleges that the team’s management fraudulently concealed information about the ill effects that repeated head trauma can cause. Medical literature for decades has observed problems from repeated concussions. An attorney for the players, Dirk Vandever, of the Popham Law Firm in [ SE E CO N CU SSI O N S O N PAG E 3]
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Getting away with it Technology is changing the equation when it comes to catching violators in the act. n Page 5
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Guardian ad litem’s role in paternity cases remains vague.
The deadline to have cases considered in compiling the year’s Top Verdicts & Settlements is Dec. 20.
n Page 14
December 9, 2013
M i s s o u r i L aw y e r s We e k ly
Discipline case will move forward even in Witt’s absence [WITT FROM PAGE 1]
the discipline case, now 123 pages long. The discipline case and legal malpractice case both say that Witt employed Bernard Becton, a convicted thief and disbarred lawyer, and didn’t let clients know about Becton’s background. Clients are trying to figure out what to do with their cases and how to get their money back. One client who hired Witt in early October for representation in a drunken driving charge told Missouri Lawyers Weekly that Witt did no work on her case. The client asked not to be named because of the nature of the charges against her. “I didn’t think he was top of the line, mind you, but I didn’t think he’d be like this,” the client said. Witt overpromises and under-delivers, and that leads to problems, Carp said. “His heart is to tell people it’s perfect; it’ll all work out,” Carp said. “Then it doesn’t really work out like that, and he finds himself in a bad position.” A number of theories exist about what happened to Witt, Carp said, including that he ran away or hurt himself. “Some people think he’s important enough to be in the witness protection program,” Carp said. “I don’t know which [theory] I subscribe to.” Michael Downey, an Armstrong Teasdale attorney who had been representing Witt in the disciplinary case, on Nov. 21 asked to withdraw from the representation. In a court filing, Downey said he hadn’t heard from Witt in more than 30 days. “There’s a lot of mess that’s left here, but really I just hope the guy’s safe,” Downey said in a phone interview.
Client help Missing attorney Jeffrey Witt’s clients can reach trustee Kenneth Carp at the Law Offices of Kenneth P. Carp, 314-942-3005. In addition to contacting Carp, clients can file a claim for missing money with The Missouri Bar’s Client Security Fund. The fund, maintained by bar dues, is for the losses of clients whose attorneys have died or been disbarred, suspended or determined to be mentally incapacitated. Payments are limited to 80 percent of the amount of the loss over $2,500 and there is a maximum payment of $50,000 per claim. For information, call the bar at 573635-4128, or go to www.mobar.org/ forthepublic/clientsecurityfund/
County. A child’s car seat and trash including a deflated kiddie pool were piled at the side of the house.
‘Bunch of Russians’
Witt is “currently representing parties in 58 pieces of active litigation” filed in state courts between Jan. 1 and Nov. 19, according to the OCDC filing, and he could be representing more clients whose cases were filed before that period. He’s also listed in online records as an attorney in four cases in U.S. District Court in St. Louis. His interactions with clients could be strange: He told a client who lost her home in a foreclosure that he “could give the keys to ‘a bunch of Russians’ that he knew and that they would strip the house and pay her a few hundred dollars,” the filing says. He threatened to call the police on a different former client if she showed up at his office. A sign on the door of missing St. Peters attorney Jeffrey Witt’s office informs clients to contact lawyer Kenneth Witt was convinced he could beat the $950,000 judgment discipline case, Downey said. Witt’s troubles started piling up in Carp, who is handling Witt’s cases in the interim. Photos by Karen Elshout Carp started sorting through Witt’s files October, around the time of his 39th last week, a task made more difficult bebirthday. The OCDC filed a discipline cause of flood damage from a problem in document called an information with the a next-door unit. A client in a sales comstate Supreme Court Advisory Committee mission case had called St. Peters police on Oct. 2. In mid-October, Witt’s office on Oct. 24 and again Oct. 25 when she flooded, Carp said. On Oct. 15, Clayton found his solo office in the 4100 block of police arrested Witt after he hit a parked Old Highway 94 unlocked and empty, accar and couldn’t perform sobriety tests the cording to police reports included in court responding officer gave him. A breath test documents. St. Louis County police evenfor alcohol was negative, according to a tually made contact with Witt at his home, police report. according to one of the reports. A week later, St. Louis County Circuit Carp figures that the office might have Judge Colleen Dolan entered a $950,000 been left open by Witt’s employees or a judgment against Witt and his law office couple of people who shared office space in a legal malpractice lawsuit over his hanwith him. dling of a personal injury case for a school Witt takes on too many cases and bebus driver and her family injured in a car lieves every case can be championed for accident. Witt didn’t appear for and put on his clients, Carp said. no defense at a hearing. Attorneys in the “If his practice was considerably smaller, case reached an agreement that the award A client found Witt’s office unlocked, unattended and in disarray in late October and called police. it might be true,” Carp said. “The chalwould be sought from his insurer, said lenge attorneys have is we can make monLouis Basso, an attorney who represented Alan S. Cohen, a co-defendant who earlier tice case both say that Witt employed and making a false declaration in pending ey doing lots of things, but we can only be was dismissed from the case, which Basso Becton, a convicted felon and disbarred criminal cases in St. Louis County. He did good at a few of them. lawyer, and that Becton was purporting not return a message left at a home phone “After you’ve established a practice, you said was not worth more than $30,000. “Now they’ve got to prove the case and to be an attorney and handling cases with number. He had worked in Witt’s office for don’t need the stress that goes along with about 10 months, little supervision. so many small collect it against Plaintiffs’ at- including in late cases. I think The Bar Plan,” torneys James 2010 and early he took on too Basso said. accordR. Dowd and 2011, much.” The plaintiffs, Matthew O’Grady ing to the lawsuit Chief Jessica and Brian issued a statement and the discipline Disciplinary Stacy, are suing saying they were case. Counsel Alan The Bar Plan for Attorney Michael Downey Alan Pratzel, chief disciplinary counsel Witt was to be in full compliance Pratzel said the money. with a Missouri deposed in one of Witt’s discipline For privacy Supreme Court Becton’s criminal case will continue reasons, The Bar Plan doesn’t confirm whether the insurer rule that requires attorneys to report other cases, according to online court records, to move forward. Pratzel declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but he does or does not insure someone, said attorneys they know have acted unethi- but it’s not clear if he was. Witt’s listed home number was discon- said desertions are rare. Patrick O’Leary, vice president and gen- cally. Becton, who has served time for other nected. No one answered the door last “It doesn’t happen very often that someeral counsel. The discipline case and legal malprac- offenses, faces charges of forgery, theft Tuesday at Witt’s home in west St. Louis one walks away from their practice.” mo
There’s a lot of mess “ that’s left here, but really I just hope the guy’s safe. ”
It doesn’t happen very “ often that someone walks away from their practice. ”
4 of 4 Missouri Lawyers Weekly submissions to Best News Story.