The Queue Crew By Brian Montopoli
Shark Hunt By Dashka Slater
The Right to Dry By Dusty Horwitt
Peruvian Guilty By Jason Felch
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By Stephen Gillers
Keeping the San Francisco bar honest.
ALAN KONIG SPENDS A LOT OF TIME with bad lawyers. As deputy trial counsel for the San Francisco office of the State Bar of California, he prosecutes attorneys accused of various kinds of misconductsharks who lie, cheat, and overbill, and sad sacks who have left their clients in the lurch because of illness or incompetence. Some stop returning their clients' calls and others don't bother to show up to court at all. The State Bar processes about 6,000 complaints a year, but very few of them generate headlines. Shysters in the legal profession are hardly news.
But last year, Konig, a mild-mannered 35-year-old, encountered a real doozy of a lawyer, who inspired him to become a kind of caped crusader in khakis. Nikolai Tehin wasn't your run-of-the-mill crooked lawyer. Konig would eventually accuse him of stealing $2 million from disabled children, poor immigrants, and other hard-luck cases. Pursuing the 57-year-old Tehin consumed more than a year of Konig's life and generated so much paperwork that the case files had to be moved out of his office into a storage room across the hall.
In the spring of 2002, when Konig first encountered him, Tehin was in practice with his wife, an attorney named Pamela Stevens. Their firm, Tehin + Partners, specialized in medical malpractice, personal injury, and commercial litigation. Its success was evident in the couple's taste for Ferraris, Jaguars, and BMWs, their 73-foot yacht, and their six-bedroom, seven-bathroom house in the tony Pacific Heights neighborhood.
It was the case of Robert Krumm, a developmentally disabled 63-year-old, that brought Tehin to Konig's attention. Tehin had represented Krumm in a medical malpractice suit after a mistreated infection in Krumm's foot led to the amputation of his leg. The case was settled for $150,000, and the court ordered Krumm's share of the money placed in two trusts, one to pay off his medical liens and the other to take care of his future medical care. Tehin cashed the settlement check, but he never set up the trusts or handed over the money. "This developmentally disabled man lost his leg and now had his money stolen," Konig said. "Could you add more misery to this man's life? I mean this man has had the worst life imaginable, and here come Mr. Tehin and Ms. Stevens and they kick him when he's down."
Konig sports a bristly, blond buzz cut that is a vestige of his days in the Navy's JAG Corps. He spent a year and a half as a district attorney, and, like many in that line of work, he believes that people come in two stripes: innocent and guilty. He is offended by lying and greed and is unmoved by the sob storiesabout nasty divorces, lingering illnesses, financial downturnsthat lawyers use to excuse their ethical lapses. Disciplining unethical attorneys may not be a glamorous job, but Konig sees it as a noble one. As he put it, "I can leave my job every day knowing that I've helped somebody, and that's what it's all about."
Konig subpoenaed the bank records for the Tehin + Partners client trust account, where the firm is supposed to deposit client retainers and settlements and leave the money to accrue interest, subtracting only fees and expenses. The records revealed a profusion of ethical lapses. Tehin was using the funds to pay for health insurance, make car payments, pay the rent on his and his wife's swanky financial district office, and buy flowersdoing everything but keeping the money for the clients. He frantically moved funds in and out of the trust account, sometimes covering settlement checks when the account was depleted with money borrowed against the equity in his home.
Konig alleges that Tehin was operating a kind of Ponzi scheme, using one client's settlement to fund his lavish lifestyle, then paying off the client (when the pressure to do so became intense) with the funds from another client's settlement. When Tehin got a $2 million settlement for more than a hundred low-income tenants who had been living in squalid conditions in Napa, Calif., the money didn't go to the tenants. Instead, it was used to pay the mortgage on Tehin and his wife's Pacific Heights mansion and fund repairs of the yacht. More than a year after receiving their settlement, Tehin finally paid all the tenants, but since he'd already spent their money, he used settlements that belonged to three disabled children, two siblings with cystic fibrosis and a boy who had suffered severe neurological injuries just after birth. The moneywell over a million dollarswas supposed to have been placed in trust to pay for the children's future medical care.
The lawyers had not only embezzled settlements but also engaged in creative accounting, billing a client in one wrongful-death suit $43,000 for expenses that included a three-day weekend at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, Calif., and the services of seven expert witnesses who said they had never heard of either Tehin or the client. In August, the California Bar placed both Tehin and Stevens on involuntary inactive status, making it illegal for them to practice law.
Konig had fulfilled his mission, but Tehin continued to consume his attention. For one thing, he wasn't convinced that Tehin and Stevens had stopped practicing lawhe kept hearing that the pair had been meeting with clients or even negotiating with opposing counsel, and he had to make several more trips to court to get them to surrender their client files. And then there were the parents of the three disabled children, who had never seen a penny of their settlements. They kept calling Konig's office, wanting to know why Tehin and Stevens were still living comfortably in their Pacific Heights mansion instead of in a jail cell.
Konig had limited solace to offer them. The San Francisco district attorney's office seemed in no hurry to prosecute, and it eventually stopped returning Konig's calls. "We gave them everything they needed to walk into a courtroom that day and get an arrest warrant," he recalled. "I don't understand, and I don't think the clients understand, why that never happened." Konig decided to take the matter to the U.S. attorney for Northern California, who had expressed interest in combating white-collar crime.
Konig's moment of vindication came last July, when FBI and IRS agents arrived at the home of Tehin and placed him under arrest. Free on $3.5 million bail, Tehin now awaits trial on six counts of mail fraud (because he used the mail to bilk his clients) and nine counts of money laundering. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
As for Konig, he has more mundane cases of attorney malfeasance to keep him busy these days: a couple of lawyers who blew off their clients, another one who elevated overbilling to a high art. But he still likes to bring out the videotape of Tehin's arrest, which shows Tehin shoulder-blocking a photographer and then sprinting down the street to escape the cameras. Konig admitted, "I enjoy watching that tape over and over."