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In re Johnson

Supreme Court of Louisiana

December 11, 2019

IN RE: LAURA J. JOHNSON

          ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDING

          PER CURIAM [*]

         This disciplinary matter arises from formal charges filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel ("ODC") against respondent, Laura J. Johnson, an attorney licensed to practice law in Louisiana but currently on interim suspension for threat of harm to the public. In re: Johnson, 15-1946 (La. 11/12/15), 182 So.3d 37.

         PRIOR DISCIPLINARY HISTORY

         Before we address the current charges, we find it helpful to review respondent's prior disciplinary history. Respondent was admitted to the practice of law in Louisiana in 1979. Between 1985 and 2007, the disciplinary board administered private discipline to respondent on eight occasions, as follows: (1) a formal private reprimand in March 1985 for failing to appear at the sentencing of a criminal client; (2) an admonition in November 1990 for failing to cooperate and respond to a written complaint (the Holder matter); (3) an admonition in November 1990 for failing to cooperate and respond to a written complaint (the Manausa matter); (4) an admonition in November 1993 for failing to cooperate and respond to a written complaint (the Tatum matter); (5) an admonition in August 1994 for two counts of failing to cooperate and respond to a written complaint (the Carter and Jamison matters); (6) an admonition in August 1996 for failing to comply with the local court rules in representing a client at a detention hearing; (7) an admonition in August 2003 for representing a client in a juvenile matter without authority; and (8) an admonition in July 2007 for engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice in connection with the signing of a judgment.

         In 1997, we suspended respondent from the practice of law for one year, with six months deferred, followed by two years of probation, for failing to refund an advanced payment for unused travel expenses and failing to cooperate with the ODC in its investigations by failing to appear for depositions pursuant to four investigatory subpoenas. In re: Johnson, 97-0879, 97-0880 (La. 9/26/97), 700 So.2d 1260 ("Johnson I"). In 2014, we accepted a petition for consent discipline and publicly reprimanded respondent for engaging in conduct constituting a conflict of interest. In re: Johnson, 14-1942 (La. 10/24/14), 149 So.3d 1233 ("Johnson II").

         Against this backdrop, we now turn to a consideration of the misconduct at issue in the instant proceeding.

         UNDERLYING FACTS

         In 2013, respondent represented Kenneth Stanford, who pleaded guilty to theft by fraud in Winn Parish. In June 2013, Mr. Stanford was sentenced to serve five years at hard labor, suspended, and was placed on four years of supervised probation with special conditions, including the requirement that he make restitution in the amount of $36, 265, to be paid to the Winn Parish District Attorney's Office in monthly installments of $2, 500 each beginning on August 1, 2013. Thereafter, Mr. Stanford did not timely make all of his court-ordered restitution payments, and by the summer of 2015, he still owed $24, 565 on his account. A revocation hearing was set for August 19, 2015.

         On August 13, 2015, respondent signed a receipt reflecting that Mr. Stanford had given her $24, 500 for his restitution obligation. Mr. Stanford, in turn, provided the receipt to his probation officer. However, Mr. Stanford did not actually give respondent any money. Later, respondent admitted that she gave the receipt to Mr. Stanford relying on his promise that an attorney from Texas would be arriving that day with the funds. When no funds were delivered to the District Attorney's Office, Mr. Stanford's probation officer began making inquiries into the source of the funds allegedly paid to respondent. Respondent then attempted to have the August 19threvocation hearing continued, but her request for a continuance was denied. On the day of the hearing, respondent asked the trial judge if she could go back to her office because she was feeling ill. The trial judge agreed, but respondent did not return to the courtroom that day, forcing a continuance of the revocation hearing until September 23, 2015.

         On August 31, 2015, Mr. Stanford was arrested on a misdemeanor criminal charge in Jackson Parish. He was held in the Jackson Parish jail on a detainer for probation violations. The trial judge found probable cause on the probation violations and re-set the revocation hearing for September 28, 2015.

         Meanwhile, the Winn Parish District Attorney's Office had requested that a formal investigation be opened into the possible misappropriation of Mr. Stanford's restitution funds. On September 3, 2015, an officer from the Winn Parish Sheriff's Department interviewed Mr. Stanford in the Jackson Parish jail. Mr. Stanford informed the officer that he had given respondent $24, 500 in cash in $100 bills to pay his restitution, and in exchange, respondent gave him a signed receipt. Mr. Stanford could not explain what happened to the funds after he paid them to respondent, but he insisted that he should not still be in jail on a probation hold.

         On September 4, 2015, respondent went to the Winn Parish Sheriff's Department and confessed that Mr. Stanford had given her $24, 500 in cash to pay his restitution, but that she had used the money "inappropriately" and "could not get it back." Respondent claimed that Mr. Stanford had no knowledge of what she had done and stated that she took full responsibility for her actions. At the conclusion of the interview, respondent was arrested and booked on a charge of felony theft.[1]

         Law enforcement officers subsequently obtained jail phone recordings of conversations between respondent, Mr. Stanford, [2] and his wife, Audrea Denise Stanford, which took place from September 1, 2015 to September 4, 2015. After listening to the recordings, the officers concluded there was a conspiracy between the three individuals calculated to secure Mr. Stanford's release from jail on the probation hold. The telephone calls revealed to the authorities that respondent had never actually received $24, 500 from Mr. Stanford, but that respondent had agreed to turn herself in and "confess" that she received $24, 500 and converted the funds without the knowledge or authorization of Mr. Stanford, all in order to show that Mr. Stanford had complied with his sentence and therefore should not be held in jail on a probation hold. Based on the recordings, respondent was arrested on October 6, 2015 and charged with conspiracy to commit felony theft, corrupt influencing, filing or maintaining false public records, and attempted felony theft. These charges were ultimately dismissed in connection with respondent's guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace.

         DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDINGS

         In August 2015, the ODC received a complaint against respondent from Judge Jacque Derr of the Eighth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Winn, the judge who presided over Mr. Stanford's criminal case. In ...


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