It has been almost two months since Philadelphia lawyer Michael Kwasnik was charged with stealing more than $1 million from an elderly Cherry Hill widow and accused in a lawsuit by New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow of running a Ponzi scheme that bilked investors of many millions more.
What comes through most from conversations with the people in the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics is just how satisfied they are with the way they have handled this matter.
Kwasnik, according to the agency's own records, has been on its radar since at least 2006, with multiple allegations of fraud and misconduct. But it was only on Dec. 7, 2011, a month after his indictment, that the state Supreme Court, acting on a request by the OAE, temporarily suspended Kwasnik's law license. In the years that it took the agency to get to the point of acting, Kwasnik allegedly misappropriated millions in client and investor funds.
Winnie Comfort, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Supreme Court, which has authority in attorney ethics matters, said in an interview that the OAE would review its own handling of the matter and that no one from outside the agency would be involved.
She said she knew of no facts that suggest the office had mishandled the case.
"The attorney ethics system works well," she said. "This case was an anomaly. His license was suspended immediately once he was indicted. We will, if necessary, identify areas where we might do things differently. We do this all the time. It would seem that the attorney ethics office was the first office to even look at this guy."
None of the many allegations of fraud and misconduct against Kwasnik, who was indicted Nov. 7 on charges of theft and arrested in Alabama a few days later, has been finally adjudicated. The indictment is merely a charge, and if the case goes to trial, a jury will decide.
Kwasnik is still being held in the Camden County Jail, according to the Attorney General's Office.
One unavoidable conclusion, though, about the Office of Attorney Ethics is that it appears to have had numerous opportunities to resolve the many allegations against Kwasnik and potentially spare other Kwasnik investors and legal clients harm.
But it passed on those chances.
After receiving the initial complaints in 2005 - that Kwasnik used money from a client trust account to cover shortfalls in the business account of his law firm - it took the OAE three years to file a formal complaint on Dec. 18, 2008.
That is when, it seems, the clock stopped. There were some supplementary complaints filed in 2010, but not much else was done. To date, no hearing has been held on the alleged ethical infractions involving "fraud, deceit, misrepresentation and dishonesty."
Kwasnik's license has been suspended. But that was too late to help Adeline Kasarda, a Medford widow who hired Kwasnik in 2009 to write a will. When Kwasnik learned that she had a developmentally disabled son, he recommended she set up a special-needs trust for him. Over time, Kasarda gave Kwasnik $550,000. That money came in part from an insurance settlement paid to Kasarda and her late husband after another son died in a workplace accident.
Kwasnik invested the money in Liberty State Benefits of Pennsylvania, an investment firm that he had helped set up and where he also served as general counsel. Kwasnik's father, William, had run the company for a time and had been the head of its parent, Liberty State Financial Holdings Corp., a Cherry Hill-based company.
On July 29, both companies filed for bankruptcy in Wilmington.
A court-appointed trustee said in a lawsuit against Kwasnik and former directors of the company that Kwasnik drained more than $1 million from the firm before the bankruptcy filing and that the transaction had contributed to the company's inability to pay about $17 million in claims. Many of the company's 73 investors are elderly.
Comfort's defense of the OAE seems to be that some of those alleging they had been bilked by Kwasnik were investment clients, not legal clients, and that the agency has jurisdiction only in matters of legal ethics, not financial transactions. In fact, some clients, including Kasarda, seem to have received both financial and legal advice.
Kwasnik allegedly persuaded them to place funds with Liberty State Benefits and he drew up legal documents.
Comfort also contends the case was unusually complex.
But not really. The first allegations against Kwasnik were that he misappropriated funds from a client trust account.
This was not a complicated Enron-style scenario, with off-the-books subsidiaries orchestrating offshore transactions. According to people familiar with the transactions, it was quite simple: money being withdrawn from one account and being placed in another.
That might be complicated for the Office of Attorney Ethics. But it shouldn't be.
Find more coverage of financial crimes against the elderly, plus resources for help, at www.philly.com/elder