A Brewer attorney’s license is suspended for a year but he will be allowed to continue practicing law as long as he does court-appointed work on behalf of the state’s poor, a Maine judge has ruled.
Donald F. Brown, of Brewer, was suspended for misrepresenting that he had completed mandatory legal education courses in 2020 to the Board of Overseers of the Bar, which is Maine’s office of attorney licensing and oversight. Brown was also reprimanded because he had a sexual relationship with a woman who he took on as a client, according to the order signed by the judge.
Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon decided that Brown’s action merited discipline but that the entirety of the sanctions should be suspended as long as Brown does court-appointed work for the state and completes additional legal education classes on ethics and conflict of interests.
However, Brown is not currently eligible to accept appointments through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, said the agency’s executive director Justin Andrus.
MCILS is the state agency responsible for overseeing defense lawyers assigned to adults and children charged with crimes who cannot afford to hire their own attorney.
Maine is the only state in the country that doesn’t currently employ public defenders and instead relies entirely on contracts with private attorneys to represent low-income defendants. Maine is required by the state and federal constitution to provide this service at the state’s expense.
McKeon ordered that Brown accept court-appointments to criminal, protective custody or other MCILS cases as a condition of keeping his law license.
Andrus said MCILS was not a party to the board of overseers legal action and it is not required to engage or refrain from contracting with Brown.
Brown has been sanctioned three times by the state board of overseers. The board dismissed a complaint and gave a warning to Brown in 2002, according to McKeon’s order. Brown was publicly reprimanded in 2006 for allowing the statute of limitation on a case to expire without alerting his client or filing her lawsuit. Brown was reprimanded again in 2016 for his representation of former Washington County Sheriff Donald Smith in an unemployment compensation case related to the disputed firing of a county employee, board records show.
MCILS has a troubled history of contracting with lawyers with histories of professional misconduct or criminal convictions, an investigation published in 2020 by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica found. Attorneys contracted with the commission during its first decade of operation between 2010 and 2020 were disproportionately disciplined for professional misconduct. Commission lawyers made up about 15 percent of the practicing attorneys in Maine, but they were 26 percent of the lawyers disbarred, suspended or reprimanded in the past decade, according to an analysis by the news organizations.
Andrus has opened dozens of investigations into attorneys contracted with MCILS since he was brought on as the new director in January 2021, monthly agency reports show. He has stopped a few attorneys from accepting cases in light of new criminal charges or not complying with his investigations, the Monitor reported.
All the while, MCILS has seen a declining number of defense lawyers willing to accept new cases for Maine’s indigent defendants, The Maine Monitor has reported.
A voicemail seeking comment from Brown on Thursday was not returned on Thursday. In response to information the board of overseers filed with the court, Brown acknowledged that he did not have the required continuing education credits needed to keep his law license in February 2020 and signed up for multiple classes that month, according to records filed in the case. He acknowledged he did not participate in the live courses, and contended that he watched it later in the day, records show.
“… the court does not believe that Brown completed the live courses at all — either in real time or after the fact. The court simply does not accept that defense,” McKeon wrote in an earlier decision in the case.
Maine lawyers are required to annually register with the board of overseers and show that they have completed at least 12 credit hours of continuing legal education in the prior year. Failure to do this can result in an administrative suspension, during which time the lawyer cannot practice law.
Some of those educational hours can be done by self-study, but at least seven hours must be done as “live” classes.
Brown said at his hearing that he was not aware, at the time, that the rules required that he attend the live classes at the time they were scheduled. He said he had reviewed the rules since the investigation was opened.
A paralegal, who formerly worked at Brown’s law firm, reported to the board of overseers that she had completed mandatory legal education classes on Brown’s behalf in 2020, according to board records and testimony at a discipline hearing in July. Text messages exchanged between Brown and the paralegal show Brown was scheduled to be in court on days he was signed-up to take the live classes.
In light of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the board of overseers later extended the deadline to complete courses to April. Brown completed three live courses by the new deadline, according to the decision.
The board of overseers also sought sanctions against Brown because of a sexual relationship he maintained with a client.
Brown acknowledged in court records that he was in a long-term sexual relationship with a woman who he later represented in a protection from abuse case and divorce. Brown lived with the client and her child at times and employed her at his law office, according to board records and testimony at the hearing. Brown later withdrew as her attorney when a magistrate raised concerns about the ethics of their relationship, records show.
McKeon decided that Brown’s personal interests were in conflict with his representation of the woman and that he should have obtained her informed consent in writing.
“Given Brown’s adamant testimony that it was impossible that his personal interests could interfere, the court finds that he could not have orally informed his client of the real risks involved with his ongoing representation,” McKeon wrote in an earlier decision.
Brown received a reprimand for his conduct.
Samantha Hogan covers government accountability and the criminal justice system for The Maine Monitor. Reach her with other story ideas by email: email@example.com.
This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor. The Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan and nonprofit civic news organization.