Those behind bars may often come up with strange stories, but convict Florence Myra Strom had a particularly bizarre tale to pass along to a bankruptcy court early last year.
Before she was sentenced to 12 years on a conviction of stealing from a former employer, the 57-year-old grandmother filed for bankruptcy in 1998. She'd surrendered her Rodeo SUV and credit cards as part of the past freedom she'd be giving up. Then, as an inmate, she discovered that charges had still been coming in on her credit cards -- even the bank that carried her car loan continued to demand its SUV back.
Worse yet, Strom said she knew who had been running up those bills and helping herself to the SUV: Strom's own attorney, Patricia Anne O'Kane.
O'Kane scoffed at the wild allegations, noting they came from a felon and saying that various enemies were only trying to discredit her (see "Taking Credit," by George Flynn, November 23, 2000).
However, in the nearly two years since Strom's initial complaint, court documents reflect accusations that O'Kane bilked other clients in the same fashion. Investigators cite three other people who say they went to O'Kane for legal representation in bankruptcies. They followed her orders to hand over their charge cards, supposedly so she could submit them to the bankruptcy trustee -- then they discovered an array of purchases made on those cards, court filings indicate.
Minnie Lajuan Brockermeyer reported that O'Kane even had her drive the lawyer to Brockermeyer's bankruptcy court session in 1996, with O'Kane offering an explanation that O'Kane's Jaguar was "in the shop." After the hearing, she had Brockermeyer give her the keys to her '94 Saturn -- but months went by before the lender got the Saturn back, the records allege.
Clients Troy McClendon and Jeffrey A. Harper said their "surrendered" credit cards were still being used for purchases such as antiques, electronics, clothing and entertainment, including food and drinks at the ritzy Trattoria Toscana in Aspen. When they confronted O'Kane, they said, she told them to accept the charges or their bankruptcy actions would be jeopardized.
Trustee attorney Hector Duran filed court papers saying O'Kane at one point told McClendon and Harper their credit cards had been stolen from her office and that she would get the debts discharged as part of their bankruptcy. After the case ended, she returned the cards -- including three belonging to people unknown to either McClendon or Harper.
O'Kane, who had been disciplined by the state bar three previous times and had three legal malpractice cases against her, initially fought an emergency bar action to suspend her license early this year. She argued that she was the sole parent and provider of a ten-year-old son adopted at birth.
The lawyer also pleaded for sym-pathy, saying that she'd endured "some serious personal hardships," including the breakup of a relationship and the prolonged illness of her father, who died of cancer in 1999. O'Kane said she became clinically depressed and abused alcohol, rebounding after a 12-step recovery program.
However, she also argued that her alleged actions hardly merited the drastic step of stripping her of her law license, and that those making the accusations didn't have firsthand knowledge of who had made the charges on their cards.
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Circumstantial evidence seemed to say otherwise. For example, Strom's card was used for a $179 continuing legal education course in San Antonio. McClendon's bills showed that a fictitious "Linda McClendon" charged $1,839 in patio furniture that was delivered to O'Kane's Montrose home.
In the end, O'Kane agreed to an interim suspension as one who posed "a substantial threat of irreparable harm to clients or prospective clients." A trial date on permanent discipline is set for early next year in state court. But there is still no criminal action under way against the attorney. Those involved with the case either declined to talk or could not be reached for comment.
A pending hearing in bankruptcy court seeks to force O'Kane to reimburse creditors and clients for several thousand dollars. The trustee says those are for the bogus charges and fees she got while engaging in fraudulent schemes. Duran's petition notes that bankruptcy filers are especially vulnerable as citizens who can "ill afford to be victimized" by unscrupulous lawyers.
That's especially true for Strom, an inmate whose bizarre story turned out to be not that bizarre after all.