Cloudy
56°
Cloudy
Hi 65° | Lo 51°

Challenge looms for ex-leader

Bettencourt could face big obstacles to practicing law

Confronted last week with accusations he fabricated a law school internship, then-House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt left the Legislature with an apology - and everyone else with questions.

What had Bettencourt - who admitted to 'misrepresenting' work he did for state Rep. Brandon Giuda - been thinking? How did the University of New Hampshire School of Law not realize he wasn't showing up to Giuda's solo law practice? And what would happen to the 28-year-old student, who walked at the law school's commencement ceremony last month but had yet to graduate?

Those questions remain unanswered, at least publicly. While Bettencourt has apologized for an 'inexcusable lapse in judgment and integrity,' he hasn't given his version of events in response to the claims made by Giuda, a Chichester Republican who said Bettencourt faked reports of an 11-week internship he didn't perform.

Giuda, who said Bettencourt came to his office just once after signing a contract earlier this year setting out terms, said the law school never contacted him or asked him to fill out an evaluation mid-semester.

When he contacted the school asking to see Bettencourt's reports, a professor told Giuda she was planning to meet with him after Bettencourt submitted his final reports, Giuda said.

The law school has offered no explanation for the situation, citing federal privacy laws that prevent it from commenting on a student's academic record.

While the school hasn't said what discipline Bettencourt could face, the guidelines in its code of conduct are clear: Barring any mitigating circumstances, incidents of cheating, misrepresentation and discipline warrant expulsion.

If that were to happen, Bettencourt - who is still attending the University of New Hampshire - would encounter hurdles getting into another law school. The obstacles could be even greater during the bar admission process, when applicants are investigated to ensure they meet standards of good moral character.

But few rules prevent an expelled student from someday becoming a lawyer. The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, allows for students dismissed from law school for academic reasons to be admitted elsewhere or readmitted. It has no rule prohibiting the admission of an applicant previously dismissed due to an honor code violation.

And while the character review faced by prospective lawyers is rigorous, the penalties aren't absolute. For example, the only states that automatically ban applicants with felony convictions are Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

'You don't want to have a hard-and-fast rule,' said Richard Uchida, a local real estate attorney who has represented bar applicants before the state's Character and Fitness Committee.

Still, 'certainly anything involving fraud or misrepresentation' presents significant challenges during character and fitness investigations, Uchida said.

'It's pretty rare, when something like that happens you would get in on the first try, in the absence of lots of rehabilitation, remorse and restitution,' he said.

While prospective lawyers don't undergo a full 'character and fitness' background check until they seek admission to their state bar, they face similar questions in applying to law school.

According to the ABA, each of its accredited schools asks applicants character and fitness questions, which could include questions about arrests, expulsions and honor code violations.

The ABA doesn't track what weight law schools assign those questions in their admissions decisions, and its standards don't dictate that the questions even be asked.

But ABA standards also say law schools 'shall not admit applicants who do not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its educational program and being admitted to the bar' - a consideration that could involve character and fitness issues.

'That's where the bar association and the questions of whether they could actually gain admission to the bar and become a practicing attorney would enter into play,' said David Stawasz, a spokesman for Western New England University School of Law in Springfield, Mass.

Western New England University examines applicants on a case-by-case basis, Stawasz said. But the school also has to comply with ABA standards, he said.

For a previously expelled student to gain admission, Stawasz said, 'it certainly would not be an easy road.'

Some law schools won't consider an applicant expelled from law school elsewhere - regardless of the reason. 'We simply will not accept their application,' said John Cramer, a spokesman for Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

Vermont Law gets about 10 calls a year from expelled applicants, and 'in essentially every case, they will plead extenuating circumstances,' Cramer said. But after hearing the explanations for an expulsion, 'we have never come across a situation where we have accepted a student,' he said.

If an expelled law student eventually graduates, he has to report the expulsion when applying to the bar.

So do students who have been dropped, suspended, warned, placed on scholastic or disciplinary probation, or asked or allowed to resign instead of facing discipline, under the application created by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. New Hampshire's application asks a similar question.

According to NCBE standards, bar examiners should consider an applicant's history of 'relevant conduct,' including unlawful conduct, academic misconduct, false statements, employment misconduct, acts involving dishonesty or fraud, and financial irresponsibility.

The goal of the review is to determine whether an applicant's record of conduct justifies trust.

'A record manifesting a significant deficiency in the honesty, trustworthiness, diligence, or reliability of an applicant may constitute a basis for denial of admission,' the standards read.

Bar examiners are also supposed to consider when the conduct happened. Recent offenses are more concerning, according to a lawyer who has served on New Hampshire's Character and Fitness Committee.

'They're entitled to turn their life around,' said the lawyer, who spoke about the committee's process on the condition he not be named. But 'the older you are, the more demonstrative it is.'

The lawyer said it's not often that applicants raise concerns among the seven members of the committee, who are appointed by the state Supreme Court.

But the committee has to ensure the safety of the public, he said.

'Anyone who would engage in any type of fraudulent activity, or who would try to get around the requirements, would be an issue,' he said.

For an applicant with a past record of fraud or misrepresentation, making a convincing case before a character and fitness committee requires more than acknowledging the offense, Uchida said.

If the applicant simply says ' 'This was awhile ago, and I think I'm a better person' . . . that is not going to get you admitted,' said Uchida, who sits on the board of trustees for the University of New Hampshire School of Law and wasn't commenting on Bettencourt's case.

'You're going to need to present some objective evidence from a third party, more than just your own affirmation you feel fit to practice,' he said.

If an applicant's fraud resulted in financial loss, he could show he'd paid restitution, Uchida said. If the deceit was due to substance abuse, a counselor could testify to his treatment. The applicant could present evidence that he hadn't repeated the fraudulent behavior while participating in other programs and activities.

But the hurdle is still a tall one - particularly in New Hampshire, where Uchida said prospective lawyers face more scrutiny than in larger states with more applicants.

Honesty matters to the committee, because it matters in the courtroom, Uchida said.

'Frankly, they'll tell you the worst thing a lawyer can do, other than commit an act of violence, is lie to a client, lie to a court, or lie to the other side,' he said.

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)

Comments are not available for this story.