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Rebuked O.C. lawyer keeps busy

An active advisor to top GOP politicians, Phillip Greer has twice been disciplined and ordered to take ethics courses.

December 21, 2007|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Janet Nguyen was barely losing the February election for county supervisor. When she decided to ask for the recount that would eventually put her ahead, she did what many Orange County Republicans do when they need election law advice. She hired Phillip Greer.

The attorney's client list reads like a Who's Who in county Republican politics. Besides Nguyen, among those Greer has represented on election matters are county Supervisors Bill Campbell, Pat Bates and Chris Norby. He also represents Treasurer Chriss Street, who is under scrutiny in his role as a bankruptcy trustee.

Despite his status as an advisor to Orange County Republicans, the State Bar of California has disciplined Greer twice in the last 11 years and ordered him each time to take ethics courses. His advice to Nguyen that she set up a secret defense fund, which was later ruled illegal, led state election officials to rebuke the supervisor. When Greer returned the donations, which had been sent to one of his accounts, at least one of the checks bounced.

Greer's emergence as the GOP's go-to guy in election matters was greatly aided by John Lewis, a former Republican state senator and influential political consultant in Orange County. Campbell and Norby said they hired Greer on Lewis' recommendation, and Lewis said he recommended his friend of 25 years to Dave Gilliard, Nguyen's campaign consultant.

Neither Lewis nor the supervisors said they were aware of the state bar's disciplinary action against Greer.

"I've always thought he was a very competent attorney," said Lewis, who said he would continue to recommend Greer.

This month, Nguyen agreed to pay $5,000 in fines to settle investigations into the fundraising scheme. The county supervisor has said she acted on Greer's advice. Nguyen did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.

In soliciting money to defend her seat on the board, Nguyen asked donors to make checks out to Greer's client trust fund and to mail them to her campaign office in Garden Grove. The donations were not reported.

State law prohibits county officials from having legal defense funds. Nguyen also violated county law, which says the donated money amounted to political contributions that should have been reported. In addition, the three contributions the Fair Political Practices Commission cited were larger than the maximum $1,600 the law allows.

In April, Gilliard and Nguyen's county staff denied she had a secret fund or said they did not know of one. Nguyen admitted the fund's existence in May, after The Times obtained a copy of an e-mail she had sent soliciting money. The settlement with the FPPC said the investigation did not determine that the violations were deliberate and that the donations were returned within a month after Nguyen's campaign received them.

Greer, 54, whose office is in Newport Beach, was admitted to the state bar in 1981 after graduating from UCLA and Southwestern University School of Law. He agreed to be interviewed for this article and then changed his mind. The state bar disciplined him for ethics violations in 1996 and 2004.

According to state bar records, Greer represented a Georgia firm in one lawsuit at the same time he was suing the firm in another case in 2002. The state bar investigation found that Greer's representation of both parties was a "willful violation of Rules of Professional Conduct."

In the earlier disciplinary action, Greer settled a client's personal injury lawsuit for $5,000 in 1990, withholding $1,634 to pay her medical bills. The money should have been kept in Greer's client trust account.

In 1991, the client asked Greer for the remainder of the money because her insurance had paid the bills, records show. Greer did not pay her for three years, and when he did he used a cashier's check instead of one from his client trust account. According to the state bar's findings, his trust account daily balances "consistently fell below $1,634," the amount that should have always been in the account.

Greer blamed his office manager, saying the employee had removed client files, which he discovered after closing his Long Beach office. The state bar said Greer's failure to supervise the office manager prevented him from properly representing the client.

Greer was required to take ethics courses in both cases.

There were also apparent problems in repayment of at least one $5,000 contribution made to Greer's client trust account for Nguyen's defense fund. The refund check was written from Greer's office account to Townsend Public Affairs, a lobbying firm based in Irvine, and marked "Nguyen refund." The check was dated April 15, 2007, but the firm did not receive it until June 7, according to sources familiar with the transaction. It bounced June 12. Eight days later a firm official wrote Greer, asking him to mail another check. It did not arrive until Oct. 18, sources said. This appears to conflict with the finding that Nguyen returned the donations within a month of receiving them.

In an e-mail to The Times, Greer wrote, "I have no idea as to why the April check was not tendered till June, and it is my understanding that they were made good as soon as we were informed there was a problem."

Supervisors Campbell, Norby and Bates expressed satisfaction with Greer's legal advice, and Campbell credited him with a crucial role in turning back a court challenge to his 2003 victory, which like Nguyen's, came in a special election. At issue was Measure V, which requires that supervisorial vacancies be filled by special election rather than appointment by the governor. After losing in Orange County Superior Court, the county counsel defended the measure in an appellate court, where it was ruled constitutional.

hgreza@latimes.com

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