By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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By Ben DuBose
Facing a first-degree felony theft indictment, Florence Myra Strom accepted her criminal defense attorney's advice to file for bankruptcy in 1998. Strom furnished her financial information and signed various forms. She told of complying with another request from her attorney, Patricia Anne O'Kane: turn over her credit cards and car, which would be surrendered to the court.
"She said it was the law," Strom wrote.
American Express says not to leave home without it. But within a few months, Strom had no choice. She had replaced her then-new Isuzu Rodeo for not-so-public transportation -- a one-way ticket on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice express to the Gatesville prison unit. The 56-year-old grandmother received a 12-year sentence on her conviction for stealing from a former employer.
However, Strom's financial woes were hardly behind her. Her credit cards, supposedly surrendered long ago, showed continued charges. One bill was for a $3,000 television system. There were restaurant meals in San Antonio and related travel expenses. And the loan company, more than a year following her sentencing, was demanding to repossess the Isuzu that she believed had been returned long ago.
From her prison cell earlier this year, Strom sent a frantic handwritten letter to Bankruptcy Judge Karen Brown: "Help me please."
The convict said she knew who must have been driving her SUV -- and who had used her credit cards for several months. She said it was the same person who had taken them from her in the first place: her attorney, O'Kane.
"I used stolen money but got a bad sentence," Strom said in the note. "I know she didn't help me and I know now why!"
While Strom didn't exactly want to give any kind of credit to O'Kane, felons often have hard feelings for their attorneys after convictions. Those familiar with this bankruptcy case, however, say there is support for Strom's contention that attorney O'Kane helped herself to the SUV and credit cards.
There are also reports that the State Bar of Texas, which is responsible for policing attorney conduct, was made aware of those allegations months ago, but initially seemed unconcerned.
To be certain, O'Kane has not been formally accused of any wrongdoing. George Parnham, the attorney who represented her last month, declined to comment on specifics of the case. He did say he is confident that facts will emerge in bankruptcy court to clear O'Kane of any accusations. Parnham said there is no question that O'Kane never intended to defraud -- or even deceive -- her client.
And the evidence in Strom's criminal case indicates that Perry Mason himself would have been hardpressed to get the defendant off.
In May 1998, Strom had left her job at a company that operated about 1,200 pay telephones in the region. Her companion of 13 years, Lori June Greene, was a bookkeeper for the firm. The owner, suspecting that someone was stealing, installed a security camera in the company vault. It reportedly caught Strom and Greene on tape afterhours, rolling a dolly in to the large safe and helping themselves to three bags of coins containing a total of $3,000.
Investigators interviewed employees at the suspects' Sterling Bank branch, who told of them regularly hauling in 55-pound coin bags. Financial records showed there was some $235,000 in cash deposited by them over the previous three years.
The pair confessed, although Strom didn't have a lot to show for the loot -- a mortgaged house on Hammerly, a boat, a car, a motorcycle and not much more.
In a booklet assembled for the judge at sentencing, Strom appealed for mercy. She told of growing up fatherless after age 5, enduring two marriages to abusive husbands and raising several stepchildren as well as a son of her own. In the end, state District Judge Mary Bacon handed down 12-year terms to her and Greene, along with a notation that the parole board should require them to pay restitution of $115,000 each.
Strom argued that her role was limited to helping Greene at the very end of the string of embezzlements. Strom's unsuccessful motion for a new trial said she'd told O'Kane that she would make restitution if she could avoid prison. She said O'Kane didn't relay that to the judge because it might result in a harsher sentence for her co-defendant.
Courts generally frown on a defense lawyer representing more than one client in the same case because what may help one defendant may hurt the case of another. However, this case reflected no objections until after the sentencing.
The bankruptcy petition filed before sentencing indicates that it would have been tough for Strom to come up with the money for restitution. She had $153,000 in assets (most of it in property equity) and $182,578 in liabilities ($88,000 of that was owed for property). And she listed about 10 credit cards with debt balances ranging from $4,900 to $10,227.
Reviews of available records show O'Kane has had some brushes with disciplinary action in the past, and her own share of apparent financial problems.
A State Bar staffer says O'Kane has received what he termed an "active suspension" in 1981, a partially probated suspension in 1987 and a public reprimand in 1993.