Taking money from a client’s account for personal use is an obvious breach of the attorney-client relationship, still lawyers sometimes do just that. This time a prominent attorney was caught.
Bar Association President admits to money laundering
May 12, 2014. By Steve Vockrodt via lexology.com.
Jim Wirken’s, fall from grace is complete with Monday’s announcement that the formerly prominent Kansas City attorney and former Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association president admitted to federal charges of money laundering.
Wirken, 69, waived his right to a grand jury on Monday.
The criminal charges stem from the same allegations that caused the Missouri Supreme Court to disbar Wirken, effectively stripping him of his law license.
Wirken served as president of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association and was active in local legal circles. He at times also represented high-profile clients, including former Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser against discrimination claims made by a former mayoral staffer.
Wirken once drew laughs from reporters attending a press conference in Funkhouser’s office when he announced a settlement of that lawsuit. A reporter asked Wirken whether the settlement had been completed and signed, to which Wirken replied that it wasn’t. But he said not to worry, that he and the plaintiff’s lawyer had come to an agreement.
“A lawyer’s word is his bond,” he said at the time.
Wirken, however, didn’t always follow that axiom.
Wirken for much of his career ran the Wirken Law Group out of an office above Grand Street Cafe near the Country Club Plaza. For a short time, he joined well-known firm McDowell Rice Smith & Buchanan but quickly left and rejoined his old practice.
Wirken ran into money problems in recent years and took from his firm’s trust account, which held money for one of his clients, and used it to keep the firm’s struggling finances afloat. That amounts to a blatant violation of an attorney-client relationship.
In one instance, Wirken deposited $51,000 in client funds into his law firm’s operating account, and then took out a cashier’s check against that deposit to pay another client who had loaned Wirken money.
As Wirken’s financial woes deepened, so too did his ability to deceive clients with fanciful claims about where their money was going.
Take for example the story of Jimmie Lee Taylor, one of Wirken’s erstwhile clients. Taylor hired Wirken to handle legal claims related to a revocable trust account set up in his family’s name. Wirken somehow talked Taylor into making two sets of loans out of that trust account. One set would go to Wirken’s law firm and the other would go to a real estate development company.
But Taylor didn’t know two things before he made those loans: One, that Wirken was getting a finder’s fee on those real estate loans (a brazen conflict of interest); and two, that Wirken had severe financial troubles and couldn’t get a conventional loan to keep his law practice running.
Wirken told Taylor and other clients to whom he owed money that he had won some big settlements in other cases and that cash was headed his way, but that wasn’t true.
Wirken had another interesting story for Taylor: The $261,740 in loans made to the real estate firm were personally guaranteed by former Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Jeff Montgomery.
Taylor hasn’t been repaid for those loans and is still wading through the courthouse morass to recover a legal malpractice claim against Wirken.
Taylor’s case was one of many that caused his disbarment in 2012. Wirken told The Kansas City Star that he would simply move on from being a lawyer to helping other lawyers with their cases as a consultant.
“I’m busier now than I was before, but I don’t have to put up with the baloney,” he told the Star.
Wirken faces up to 10 years in prison; sentencing has not yet been scheduled.