Commentary: Leadership Questions State Bar

Executive Director of the State Bar of California speaking at a May 23, 2023, Joint Judiciary Committee hearing on corruption at the California State Capitol. (Screenshot by Robert J. Hansen)

By Robert J. Hansen

Led by its Chairman Ruben Duran and Executive Director Leah Wilson, leadership at the California State Bar remains under a microscope in wake of the corruption and bribery schemes evidenced by disbarred attorney Thomas Girardi. Who else, then, is the bar protecting and why?

Former California State Auditor Elaine Howle said the State Bar’s commitment to enforcing the rules of professional conduct is a reflection of leadership in both the Executive Office and the Board, currently led by Ruben Duran and Leah Wilson.

“Like any agency that both licenses and enforces licensing requirements, there can be effective oversight of licensees as long as leadership supports that responsibility,” Howle said in a recent interview.

So, how does the State Bar select its leadership during these trying times of purported reform?

Executive Director Leah Wilson previously served as the State Bar’s executive director until she resigned in January 2019 “to pursue what she described as a venture mixing public and private dollars with philanthropy” according to Cheryl Miller of—Wilson would later be “re-hired” in June 2021.

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Ruben Duran was City Attorney for the small desert city of Adelanto when the “self-serving profit-taking and graft engaged in by a group of elected officials exploiting that city’s transition to a marijuana-based economy hit its zenith,” according to Mark Gutglueck of the San Bernardino Sentinel.

Duran, with the law firm of Best Best and Krieger, announced his resignation as city attorney for the City of Adelanto via letter on August 23, 2018, a day before the Council was to consider the possibility of terminating him according to Daily Press.

“After 13-and-a-half months of intense, sometimes challenging, but always fulfilling legal work for the City of Adelanto,” Duran wrote, “I find that I must regretfully tender my resignation as your City Attorney, effective as soon as the Council can secure a new City Attorney.”

According to Mark Gutglueck of San Bernardino Sentinel, “in the months prior to Duran’s resignation as Adelanto city attorney, federal law enforcement agencies were focusing on the degree to which Duran was enabling two members of the city council, who were personally profiting” from new cannabis regulations in the city.

Former Adelanto Mayor Richard Allen Kerr was recently convicted of honest services fraud for his involvement in taking bribes and kickbacks from commercial cannabis interests, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. These kickbacks occurred while Kerr was mayor of Adelanto from 2015 to 2018, during which time Duran was City Attorney.

A mere three weeks after he was purportedly set to be fired from Adelanto, Duran was appointed by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to the Board of Trustees on September 14, 2018. The California Supreme Court appointed him Chairman in 2021.

Down the road from Adelanto in the desert, the City of Coachella was represented by Best Best and Krieger’s Carlos Campos, who works with Duran in the City of Ontario. Now, Duran is a co-defendant in Superior Court within an alleged malicious prosecution scheme that commenced September 14, 2018, with attorney Kenneth Catanzarite of Catanzarite Law Corporation.

In that case, the Court of Appeal found evidence of three cases filed without probable cause that were filed with malice in an alleged takeover attempt of a cannabis company.

Anaheim attorney Kenneth Catanzarite and his associates at Catanzarite Law Corporation have a storied history of misconduct reflected by court orders, akin to Thomas Girardi and Girardi Keese.

Catanzarite’s modus operandi involves being disqualified from cases for representing multiple sides of the same disputes, getting sanctioned repeatedly for tens of thousands of dollars, and submitting lawsuits on behalf of “clients” that may lack a full understanding of their cases or allegations, according to court records.

The State Bar’s handling of Catanzarite resembles its treatment of Girardi.

According to Senior Trial Counsel Eli David Morgenstern, “the evidence ‘adduced’ in the related civil matter(s) [where Duran and Morgenstern are defendants] will aid the State Bar in its (i) investigation of Mr. Catanzarite’s conduct…; and (ii) potential prosecution of Mr. Catanzarite in State Bar Court.”

Morgenstern is managing attorney discipline of Kenneth Catanzarite as he is also a civil defendant alongside Duran and Catanzarite, which would appear to compromise his objectivity.

At a May 2023, Joint Judiciary Committee hearing, State Bar Executive Director Wilson said that, while new policies have been in place since Thomas Girardi was disbarred, new policies won’t change the culture of the State Bar.

A culture that includes taking bribes from attorneys like Girardi and complaining about not having the resources to do their job. A culture that involves engaging in more conflicts of interest, now.

This culture might be why Senator Thomas Umberg of the Senate Judiciary Committee (D-Santa Ana) said his bill, SB 40, is a response to State Bar’s failed operations. “I personally am not in support of an increase in fees,” said Umberg.

“There’s been a great deal of controversy concerning the state bar,” Umberg said at the bill hearing. “Thank you, Tom Girardi, for providing the revelation as to who much reform is required.”

Outspoken during the Joint Judiciary Committee hearing, Assembly Majority Leader Emeritus Eloise Gomez Reyes (also an attorney) received a comprehensive legislative proposal for the next session to reform the State Bar. Citing the Girardi, Duran, and Catanzarite scandals, the proposal seeks to place active state supervision on State Bar through other agencies as required by federal antitrust laws.

Why would Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon appoint Ruben Duran amidst so much controversy? Worse, why would the California Supreme Court appoint him Chairman?

Duran’s “unquestioning loyalty” gained him the appointment to serve as Ontario city attorney and perhaps the State Bar also.

Reflected by the Bar’s handling of Catanzarite, this loyalty is to the State Bar and not the public he is bound to protect. The results don’t appear to be any different now than they were when Girardi’s pocket-lining of public employees reigned.

About The Author

Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Robert is covering the Yolo County DA's race for the Vanguard.

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