An attorney being monitored by two state agencies had his license to practice law suspended amid allegations that he improperly took money from a client.
Christopher Whalley was immediately suspended from practicing law by a Maine court on Feb. 17. An investigation and complaint by the Board of Overseers of the Bar alleged that he wrote 47 checks worth $189,375 from an estate he was representing to his law firm and a trust account.
The “… withdrawals from the account follow a pattern consistent with misuse of, or embezzlement of estate funds… ,” according to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s decision to suspend him.
Whalley did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment from The Maine Monitor. His Ellsworth law firm’s website and Facebook page were no longer accessible as of Feb. 23.
Whalley was already being monitored by the Board of Overseers as a condition of a one-year license suspension, after he admitted to forging a client signature, notarizing the signature, submitting the document to a court and instructing his client in a message to “… Remenber (sic) that’s your signature,” court records show.
Justice Ann Murray of the Penobscot Superior Court ordered Whalley to seek a psychological evaluation and treatment in April 2021 as a condition of his suspension. Whalley was allowed to continue practicing law during his suspension, in part because of court-appointed legal services he provides to the state, according to the court’s decision.
“Maine courts have also considered an attorney’s legal service benefiting the community as a mitigating factor,” Murray wrote in her April 2021 order. “… Mr. Whalley’s practice in large measure is devoted to representing court appointed clients in criminal and child protection matters.”
The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, is responsible for ensuring that defendants who cannot afford to hire their own are appointed lawyers at the state’s expense. To continue representing indigent clients during his suspension, Whalley signed an agreement in June 2021 to also be monitored by MCILS, records obtained by The Maine Monitor show.
MCILS agreed to pause its investigation into Whalley’s conduct during the court’s probationary period and dismiss its investigation if he successfully completed his probationary conditions, according to a copy of the agreement.
Justin Andrus, the executive director of MCILS, indefinitely suspended Whalley from working on court-appointed cases on Feb. 22 and reassigned his clients to new attorneys.
“I have no comment about attorney Whalley’s performance with respect to MCILS other than to confirm that he is not eligible to receive additional clients,” Andrus told The Maine Monitor.
MCILS has a troubled history of contracting legal services for Maine’s poor from lawyers sanctioned for misconduct by the state agency in charge of lawyer oversight, the Board of Overseers of the Bar. An investigation in 2020 by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica found that 26% of attorneys seriously disciplined — reprimand, suspension or disbarment — between 2010 and 2020 were approved to work as lawyers for the state’s poor through MCILS.
Since taking over as executive director in 2021, Andrus has opened dozens of investigations into attorneys contracted with MCILS. He has stopped at least three attorneys, including Amy Fairfield, Patrick Gordon and Suzanne Dwyer-Jones, from accepting court-appointed cases.
The Maine Attorney General’s office filed a civil lawsuit against Fairfield and her firm, Fairfield & Associates, in December 2021 for unjust enrichment and conversion of state funds in response to one of Andrus’ investigations. Court records filed in Kennebec County show the state has made several failed attempts to serve Fairfield with the lawsuit and she had not filed a response to the allegations as of Feb. 16.
Gordon, who works at Fairfield & Associates, was also suspended from accepting court-appointments when he did not cooperate with MCILS’s investigation into the law firm’s billing. He is appealing his suspension and is scheduled to have a hearing on March 17.
Dwyer-Jones was arrested in May 2021 by the York Police Department for allegedly driving under the influence and failing a field sobriety test, The Maine Monitor previously reported. She was suspended on May 20 for failing to report her new criminal charges to MCILS.
Andrus ended Dwyer-Jones’ suspension on Jan. 4 because no complaint had been filed in court, he said. She is approved to represent indigent clients in York County against felony, drug offense, domestic violence, driving under the influence and misdemeanor charges, records show. She may also work as lawyer of the day for people in-custody and summoned to court.
“The mere fact of a charge or the mere fact of a grievance commission investigation does not mean that an attorney will necessarily be suspended,” Andrus said.
The incident with Dwyer-Jones is “still under investigation” by the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, District Attorney Jon Sahrbeck said on Feb. 15.