He represented clients all over the country: a Colorado woman accused in a murder-for-hire scheme against her husband, a Minnesota man facing child pornography charges and a hockey player convicted of trying to kill his agent.
In his free time, Howard O. Kieffer answered questions from anxious relatives of prisoners and other attorneys -- how to access medical care and which federal facilities were preferable for sex offenders.
Once active in Orange County politics, Kieffer now billed himself on his company website as an expert on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and a respected advisor on plea bargain agreements and post-conviction issues. Now it turns out his knowledge may have been gained not from law school, but from the years he spent in federal prison.
Kieffer, 53, was indicted in late August by a federal grand jury in North Dakota that accused him of mailing in a fraudulent application to practice law in North Dakota. He pleaded not guilty last week to mail fraud and to making false statement, and is free on $25,000 bail.
"He's a former inmate who's self-educated," said Greg Nicolaysen, a onetime acquaintance and the founder of the Assn. of Federal Defense Attorneys, an Internet resource for criminal defense attorneys. "He's been pushing the envelope for years."
Neither Kieffer nor his attorney, Joshua Sabert Lowther, returned calls seeking comment.
It was not Kieffer's first brush with the law.
During the 1980s, Kieffer was an activist in the Democratic Party in Orange County. In 1989, he was convicted on felony charges of defrauding the government and filing false tax returns that netted him $212,000 in refunds.
When he was indicted, party officials also learned that Kieffer already had a felony record for grand theft. Party officials asked him to give up a committee post he held. When he refused, Kieffer was removed from the appointed position.
"Life goes on and you can't just crawl in a hole and hide. . . . I just have to hold my head up," Kieffer said at the time.
He spent the next several years -- from 1989 to 1993 -- in federal prison. But he slowly made his way back into his old world.
Within several years of his release, he again became active in the Democratic Party in Orange County, supporting Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) in her successful 1996 campaign for Congress. Sanchez's opponent, then-Rep. Robert K. Dornan, zeroed in on Kieffer during the race, refusing to debate Sanchez because of her association with him.
"It is beneath the dignity of the office to share a platform," said Dornan, who lost the election.
About the same time, Kieffer founded Federal Defense Associates in Santa Ana and, Nicolaysen said, his reputation as an expert in federal sentencing issues grew.
Associates said Kieffer walked a fine line in how he described himself. He told some he had a law degree, Nicolaysen said. On his website, though, he states that he "does not practice in state courts" and that he is not a member of the State Bar of California.
"I don't recall him ever telling me he was a lawyer, but he had a company named Federal Defense Associates. The presumption was there," said Jeff Fischbach, a California-based forensic technologist who worked for Kieffer on two cases.
In 2006, he served as an attorney for a former St. Louis Blues hockey player who was trying to win a reduction in a six-year prison sentence he was given after pleading guilty to plotting to kill his agent. Kieffer was identified as an attorney in newspaper accounts of the hockey case.
Kieffer's reputation continued to flourish, partly through his work running BOPWatch, an online news group dedicated primarily to federal prison issues.
"He appears to give a lot of free advice to people who come to the website whose relatives or friends are in prison and just answers their questions -- as far as I know, accurately and truthfully," said Bruce Houdek, a Missouri attorney who says he often visited the website and met Kieffer at a federal sentencing seminar last year.
When Kieffer posted a request on Houdek's website this year asking for a local attorney to "sponsor" him for a federal case in Missouri, the Missouri attorney volunteered.
Federal courts have no uniform policy for admitting attorneys to practice in a particular district, said Richard Carelli, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Rather, each of the 94 judicial districts has its own rules; in some cases, the only requirement is that a local attorney sponsor a visiting attorney.
Kieffer's current problems began with Joel Wells, a Minnesota man who paid Kieffer $37,000 to help defend him against child pornography charges in North Dakota. Though his criminal case in still pending, Wells began checking into Kieffer's background earlier this year and sent his suspicions to U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland, the chief federal jurist in North Dakota.