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Top court reinstates disbarred immigration lawyer

Maryland’s highest court on Tuesday reinstated an immigration lawyer it had disbarred in 2007 after he pleaded guilty to felonious involvement in an immigration fraud scheme.

The Court of Appeals offered no explanation in its one-page order reinstating Rex B. Wingerter, which came less than two weeks after the court heard argument.

However, the decision drew a dissent from Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, who said the attorney has yet to acknowledge the seriousness of his crime.

“I believe the court’s decision to reinstate Mr. Wingerter represents an unwarranted lowering of the bar for reinstatement for disbarment, especially those that emanate from felony convictions,” Battaglia wrote. “It seems anomalous, and indeed incongruous, to say that an attorney who was disbarred for intentionally dishonest conduct should be reinstated, when he still does not acknowledge the seriousness of his criminal acts.”

Asked for comment, Wingerter said in an email that he is “very grateful that the court gave me the opportunity to re-enter the practice of law and allow me to once again serve the community.” He said he will now seek readmission “forthwith” to the D.C. bar, which also stripped him of his license after the conviction.

“In the meanwhile, I would hope to associate with other Maryland attorneys,” Wingerter wrote.

Wingerter served as in-house counsel for Global Recruitment and Immigration Service Inc., a Northern Virginia-based firm that helped immigrants obtain green cards.

In March 2005, Wingerter and others, including the company’s owner, were charged with conspiring to commit immigration fraud by submitting hundreds of fraudulent documents.

Wingerter pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., to misprision of a felony in 2005. Wingerter said he failed to notify authorities of the conspiracy and attempted to conceal the crime. He told the court he was aware of the plan to bring noncitizens into the country by forging their signatures and reporting false job offers.

Wingerter served four months in prison, spent a year on supervised release and paid a $70,000 fine.

On July 30, 2007, the Court of Appeals unanimously disbarred him after concluding he had committed a “criminal act involving dishonesty, fraud and misrepresentation, which reflected adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness and fitness as a lawyer.”

Abe Dash, a legal-ethics professor, said the court should have issued an opinion explaining its rationale for the reinstatement — a rarity after a felony conviction. The absence an opinion ill serves Maryland lawyers, as they do not know what factors the court considered in its decision, added Dash, who teaches at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

“What has he done in the past five years that shows he has rehabilitated and can now be trusted?” Dash said of Wingerter. “It’s a real puzzle that they haven’t given an opinion on it.”

‘One mistake’

At the Jan. 3 hearing on the petition for reinstatement, attorney Stanley Alpert told the high court that Wingerter takes full responsibility for his crime and has mentored young attorneys on the perils of getting caught up in wrongdoing.

“He made one mistake: allowing himself to be used,” Alpert, a Baltimore solo practitioner, told the court. “He brought it upon himself, and he suffered as a result of it.”

Deputy Bar Counsel Raymond A. Hein urged the court not to reinstate Wingerter, saying “at least a couple of more years” of rehabilitative acts are needed because of the seriousness of his ethical offenses.

Since 2001, the Court of Appeals had reinstated 15 disbarred attorneys, with an average span of 9.8 years between disbarment and reinstatement, Hein said at the hearing.

In Tuesday’s order, the court sided with Alpert and said Wingerter would be reinstated after completing the one-day professionalism course required of all new admittees and upon taking the attorney’s oath in open court.

Battaglia, in her dissent, said Wingerter has not satisfied the reinstatement requirement of having recognized “the wrongfulness and seriousness of the professional misconduct for which the discipline was imposed.”

Wingerter stated on his reinstatement petition that his misconduct “largely was that of omission and not commission” and was “a failure to pay sufficient attention to the operational details, failing to recognize the power of money to corrupt the workplace and overlooking and not voicing protest when witnessing the illegal conduct” of others, Battaglia noted.

“His own version of events in no way acknowledges having taken an active role to conceal the immigration fraud that permitted non-citizens to enter the country illegally, even though it is clear from our sanction discussion in the original case that Mr. Wingerter was disbarred because of intentionally dishonest conduct,” Battaglia emphasized. “Because I believe that Mr. Wingerter has not met his burden of proving that he appreciates the seriousness and wrongfulness of his misconduct, I would not readmit him to the Bar of Maryland until he does.”

In other disciplinary action this month, the Court of Appeals:

-Indefinitely suspended Marta Bertola by consent on Jan. 9.

-Disbarred Jeffrey David Kahl on Jan. 8.

-Indefinitely suspended Gregory J. Milton by consent on Jan. 4.

-Disbarred Supriya Miriam Harding by consent on Jan. 2.

BY THE NUMBERS

78:

Number of Attorney Grievance Commission petitions decided in 2012

16:

Number of disbarments ordered in contested cases in 2012

2:

Lawyers reinstated in 2012

15:

Lawyers reinstated from 2001-2012, per Attorney Grievance

9.8:

Average length of time, in years, between disbarment and reinstatement, 2001-2012

5.45:

Time between Rex B. Wingerter’s disbarment and reinstatement