Joe Dunn

The board of the State Bar of California last month fired its executive director, Joe Dunn, shown here at a 2004 hearing. (Robert Lachman)

By Maura Dolan
December 6, 2014

The agency that regulates California’s lawyers is once again beset with conflict, riddled by accusations involving expense accounts and ethics.

The turmoil became public last month when the board of the State Bar of California fired its executive director, Joe Dunn, a former state senator from Orange County.

Dunn did not go quietly.

He hired high-profile Los Angeles lawyer Mark J. Geragos and filed a lawsuit charging the bar with “egregious improprieties.”

Dunn’s critics fired back by revealing that a confidential report commissioned by the board found Dunn had spent $5,600 for a party at a Los Angeles restaurant and that a former bar president had filed an expense account report for $1,000 at Tiffany & Co.

The acrimony threatens to further diminish the reputation of the bar, an arm of the California Supreme Court that oversees nearly 250,000 lawyers and is charged with rooting out corrupt attorneys and upholding high moral standards.

Some lawyers and lawmakers have long criticized the bar as bloated, political and lenient on errant lawyers. Upheaval in the 1990s almost led to the organization’s demise, and there have been various efforts to make it less a trade organization and more a regulatory agency.

“The bar is just further descending into a banana republic,” said Golden Gate University law professor Peter Keane, who tried unsuccessfully decades ago to overhaul the association. “It is totally dysfunctional and should be unraveled.”

Funded largely by mandatory lawyers’ dues, the bar is a public corporation that regulates, disciplines and licenses attorneys, subject to the approval of the state high court. Becoming a bar leader is considered a steppingstone to a judgeship and a way to enhance a resume or attract clients.

Dunn, a former trial lawyer hired four years ago, was earning $259,000 a year when he lost his job, overseeing 500 employees and an organization with a $138.6-milllion budget.

Shortly before Dunn was fired, he filed an anonymous “whistle-blower” complaint alleging, among other things, that a bar official was manipulating records to hide a huge backlog in untended complaints against lawyers. Dunn later identified himself as the whistle-blower and said he was fired in retaliation for the complaint.

The bar suggested in a prepared statement that Dunn knew he was going to be fired before filing the complaint, a charge Geragos called “totally untrue.” The statement said Dunn was being investigated because of a complaint by a high-level executive — the same bar official Dunn had accused of misconduct.

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