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Court disbars Md. attorney who padded expenses, cheated law firm

“(Keith M. Bonner’s) pattern of misconduct involved not simply misappropriating funds but sometimes involving elaborate lies to his partners to cover his tracks, such as sending emails describing client meetings that never happened and creating false calendar entries and time sheets,” Judge Brynja M. Booth wrote for the court. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland’s top court has disbarred a Bethesda attorney for cheating not his clients but the law firm he co-founded out of nearly $15,000 by padding his expense reports during a seven-year period.

Keith M. Bonner engaged in “knowing and intentional dishonesty” in seeking compensation from the firm Bonner Kiernan Trebach & Crociata LLP for the client development work he claimed to have performed between 2012 and 2019, the Court of Appeals stated in its 7-0 decision this month.

However, the travel, hotel and restaurant expenses Bonner reported were spent on himself, his wife or their children, the high court stated.

“That Mr. Bonner stole from and lied to his partners in connection with the practice of law, as opposed to clients, is of no moment,” Judge Brynja M. Booth wrote for the court. “We decline to carve out an exception to the presence of this aggravating factor because Mr. Bonner’s conduct involved deceit and misappropriation that affected his law partners instead of clients.”

In handing down the ultimate professional sanction, the Court of Appeals rejected Bonner’s plea for mercy in light of the punishment he claimed to have already suffered in the loss of his employment at the firm he co-founded, the damage to his reputation and the pending discipline by the District of Columbia bar for the same offense. Bonner argued through counsel that his actions warranted not disbarment but suspension with the chance to apply for reinstatement after one year.

But the high court said the damage to Bonner’s reputation and loss of employment were self-inflicted and the foreseeable result of his actions.

“In many instances, an attorney’s misconduct – particularly where theft and deceit are involved – is certain to cause significant, natural consequences beyond those related to the disciplinary proceeding,” Booth wrote.

“We will not recognize the natural consequences of intentional misconduct as constituting a mitigating factor that would militate against the imposition of a more serious sanction,” Booth added. “To do so could potentially create an illogical ‘seesaw’ effect – where more egregious misconduct that results in greater adverse natural consequences leads to a reduced sanction because we consider the adverse consequences as a mitigating factor.”

The high court also rejected Bonner’s argument that his deceit was a symptom of his diagnosed frustration and anger psychosis brought on by his belief he was not being paid a fair share based on the work he was doing for the firm. Though Bonner has since been treated  for the frustration and anger, the court said these emotional problems do not excuse the “dishonest and selfish” actions he took out of “self-righteousness.”

In ordering disbarment, the court added the severity of Bonner’s intentional dishonesty was mitigated neither by his otherwise fine reputation over a 40-year legal career nor by his cooperation with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission’s investigation of the ethics complaint, which was lodged by his former law firm in 2020.

“Mr. Bonner knew that his misconduct was wrong,” Booth wrote.

“When his misdeeds were discovered in 2012, he had an opportunity to right the ship,” Booth added. “Instead, in 2015, he veered the ship back onto the wrong course and continued to steer it awry until he hit ground in 2019. His pattern of misconduct involved not simply misappropriating funds but sometimes involving elaborate lies to his partners to cover his tracks, such as sending emails describing client meetings that never happened and creating false calendar entries and time sheets.”

Maryland Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless and Bonner’s attorney, Thomas B. Mason, declined to comment Monday on the high court’s decision. Mason is with Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP in Washington.

The Court of Appeals opinion was based on findings of fact made by the judge it assigned to hold a hearing on a motion for discipline filed by the Office of Bar Counsel, the commission’s administrative prosecutor.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Harry C. Storm found that Bonner booked a flight to Bermuda with his wife and four children in July 2012. Bonner then asked one of the firm’s clients, who kept an office on the island, if he would be there when the family arrived in August.

Despite the client’s negative response, Bonner went forward with the family trip and charged $3,070.11 to the law firm’s credit card for the Bermuda expenses, Storm found.

Bonner later told the firm’s finance director that the client had invited him to Bermuda, that the expenses were for client development and that Bonner had in fact not reported all of his client-related expenses. Bonner also told his firm partners that the client had invited him.

However, when pressed by his partners, Bonner ultimately confessed. The partners regarded this as a one-time offense and simply requested that Bonner return the $3,070.11, which he did.

But three years later, Bonner resumed misappropriating from the firm, Storm found.

Bonner charged more than $11,000 in personal expenses by claiming they were for client development between 2015 and 2019. These expenses included $1,400 for air travel and hotel accommodations in San Francisco; $1,100 in Amtrak travel and hotel accommodations in New York; and $1,300 in meals, according to Storm.

The firm initiated its investigation of Bonner’s expenses in July 2019 after he submitted $639.86 in country club receipts. When firm leaders confronted him about the expenses in November 2019, Bonner retired from the practice rather than face possible expulsion, Storm stated.

The executive committee of the firm – now known as Kiernan Trebach — filed its bar counsel complaint against Bonner in January 2021.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Keith M. Bonner, Misc. AG Docket No. 51, September Term 2021.