Samuel Omwenga, a Washington-area attorney facing charges of misappropriation of funds and dishonesty, argued this morning against a sanction of disbarment before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Omwenga, a member of the D.C. Bar since 1999 with a practice in Gaithersburg, Md., is accused of putting several clients in immigration cases at risk of deportation and of misappropriating funds in his handling of a business transaction. The Office of Bar Counsel charged Omwenga in 2009 with 68 violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Both the Board on Professional Responsibility and a hearing committee agreed with the bulk of Bar Counsel’s charges and recommended disbarment (PDF). The appeals court ordered a temporary suspension in December 2010.
In arguments this morning before a three-judge panel, Omwenga, who is representing himself, said the record did not support findings that he intentionally misappropriated funds or acted dishonestly in his handling of the immigration cases.
Assistant Bar Counsel Catherine Kello urged the court to adopt the findings of “serious and flagrant dishonesty” and order disbarment.
The court focused first on asking Omwenga to explain his handling of the business transaction. His client wanted to purchase laundromat equipment, according to court records, and Omwenga was able to negotiate the purchase price down from $48,050 to $46,000. He was accused to taking the difference of $2,050 as fees without his client’s permission.
Omwenga later refunded his client $1,500, leaving $550 in contention. Omwenga argued today that the evidence showed his client acknowledged the $550 was part of proper fees by requesting a receipt and not challenging the amount at first, and only accused Omwenga of taking the money without permission later on. In his brief, Omwenga claimed his client was coached by Bar Counsel, an allegation Bar Counsel denied.
Chief Judge Eric Washington asked Omwenga to explain why both the board and hearing committee reached a different conclusion based on the evidence. Omwenga said the court should look at the “underlying circumstances,” which he said would show that he was representing his client at a lower rate than usual and that his client had accepted the additional fees.
Judge Catharine Easterly asked Omwenga to explain his handling of one of the three immigration cases at issue. In that case, which involved an asylum petition, Omwenga was accused of telling his client the wrong time for a court hearing, which led to a judge entering an order of removal from the United States. He was then accused of drafting a false affidavit to the court to explain the situation. The client later hired another attorney who successfully moved to terminate the removal order.
Omwenga said “there was nothing misleading” about the affidavit and that two other judicial bodies related to the immigration case – the Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit – did not find that Omwenga gave his client bad advice. The hearing committee and board, however, found that Omwenga’s testimony in the past had been “untruthful.”
Kello argued that the evidence was clear that Omwenga had not only refused to take responsibility for any wrongdoing, but also that he was “unconcerned with speaking truthfully.” The judges did not question Kello at length about the conclusions reached by the board and the hearing committee, focusing instead of the scope of sanctions Bar Counsel is seeking.
Besides disbarment, Kello said that if Omwenga ever applied for reinstatement to the bar, her office was asking that the court require him to pay back any money owed for unearned fees, not limited to the group of cases before the court. She also asked that Omwenga be required to pay back the Client Security Fund for any money paid to his clients over the years.
Judge Corinne Beckwith also heard the case.