Taking Credit

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.

Court files show O'Kane was sued in two legal malpractice cases with similar allegations. Separate clients had gained authorization from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to sue their former employers, but said that -- despite their prompting -- O'Kane missed the filing deadline and eventually left them empty-handed. O'Kane denied the allegations.

One of those ex-clients was former KPRC-TV/Channel 2 staffer Nora Gutierrez. In 1993, she sued both O'Kane and her ex-law partner, alleging she would have gained $3.3 million from the television station if they had "exercised proper care" in filing a timely discrimination suit. Veteran medical researcher Kenji Nishioka said he paid O'Kane more than $17,000 for his legal action against M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which was dismissed. Undisclosed settlements were reached in their legal malpractice claims against O'Kane.

In early January, three months before Nishioka settled in mediation, O'Kane went into court to file for bankruptcy for a new client -- herself. She listed debts that included $50,000 from a federal flood insurance loan and continuing payments on her townhouse and her 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee. O'Kane added $80,000 more to her listed debts by estimating $20,000 yearly from 1996-99 to the IRS for "unfiled return," case records show.

Her IRS woes actually began years earlier, according to a case filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office to force her to comply with an IRS summons. Documents show that O'Kane told IRS officer Joe Vera in 1996 that she would submit her tax returns for 1993-95 and related financial statements to him.

Those deadlines came and went. By January 1999, the government was fed up. Michael Nagle of the U.S. Marshal's Service said in an affidavit that he and another officer beat on her door at 9:40 one morning to serve a summons for a court hearing against her.

Another woman appeared at the door and explained O'Kane would be down "momentarily" after she got dressed. After the officers waited, the woman said O'Kane was "very tired from traveling." More minutes elapsed. The woman reappeared to explain that "Ms. O'Kane had locked herself in her bedroom, went back to sleep and refused to come out of her bedroom."

The marshals set up surveillance and soon saw another woman emerge, then go back into the house when she noticed their car. When she went to the backyard, Nagle yelled over the high fence and the woman warned him that there was a dog that would attack. She said some words to the animal, and the dog charged the fence gate, barking loudly, Nagle reported. The officers left.

O'Kane complied with the summons in February 1999. That legal action was dismissed, and it appeared that her bankruptcy filing for convict Strom would similarily be put away with a routine dismissal.

Instead, the inmate wrote in June that she'd just discovered that the attorney had used her credit cards from June 1998 through March 1999. Strom said O'Kane drove her SUV from October 1998 until this January. "I'm being sued for that, too," she said in the note to bankruptcy Judge Brown. Strom said O'Kane had told her the judge "denied" the bankruptcy soon after it was filed, and the attorney forwarded nothing to her, not even the case number.

In a brief conversation with the Houston Press , O'Kane downplayed the complaints and said they were being spread by enemies trying to discredit her. She referred questions to her new attorney, Dan Cogdell. His firm reported that he could not comment until he had completed a review of the case.

Judge Brown called a preliminary hearing in August, then scheduled more testimony for September. That hearing was delayed until November at the request of O'Kane -- and now it has been put off until December. On another track, the State Bar is now reported to be investigating the allegations; a person close to the bankruptcy confirmed that bar investigators called for an interview and documents.

One of those in the case said the revelations caught even experienced creditors completely off-guard. "Call me naíve," said the person, who requested anonymity. "We never dreamed this kind of extraordinary twist could happen. Everything seemed to indicate it was just a standard bankruptcy."  

Well, almost everything. One of the charges on the convict's credit card was $167 -- payment for a professional seminar for attorneys on adoption law.

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