The Louisiana Supreme Court has approved an agreement to place Rapides Parish District Attorney Phillip Terrell Jr. on probation for five years in an attorney disciplinary proceeding.
Terrell agreed to a joint petition for consent discipline. The Supreme Court accepted the petition and suspended Terrell from practicing law for one year and one day, but the court then deferred the suspension and instead placed him on five years’ probation.
The action comes following an investigation by the court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel into allegations that Terrell “failed to properly supervise a non-lawyer employee, allowing the employee to commingle and convert client funds,” according to a court news release.
The employee used more than $1,100 from a client account to pay personal bills, including cable television and telephone bills, and wrote checks for cash totaling about $3,350, using Terrell’s signature stamp, according to a “joint stipulation of facts” in the case.
The misuse of funds by the employee came to light and an investigation began after the Office of Disciplinary Counsel was notified on Sept. 30, 2013, by Evangeline Bank and Trust Co. that a Terrell client account had insufficient funds to honor a Sept. 12, 2013, request for an online payment, the joint stipulation said.
The Sanctions Analysis in the case said that although Terrell failing to properly supervise the employee “resulted in no documented actual harm to a client or third person, the potential for significant harm existed …”
Terrell could not be reached for comment Monday, but he issued a news release regarding the disciplinary action against him.
“I failed to monitor all the activities of my secretary who had been with me for several years. As a result, that person improperly accessed my client trust account and spent a small amount of money,” Terrell said in his news release.
“Immediately upon learning of this situation, I personally replaced all the funds that belonged to the third parties and fully cooperated with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
“I agree with the two dissenting justices’ opinions that the discipline was harsh. However, I accepted the discipline recommended by the ODC so as not to cause a distraction from what we are attempting to accomplish in the Rapides Parish District Attorney’s Office,” Terrell said in his statement.
Terrell, 57, was Pineville City Court judge for nearly 18 years before he resigned in early 2014 to run for district attorney. He also had a private law practice, and that is where the employee misuse of funds occurred.
The joint petition on the discipline was agreed to by Terrell and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel “prior to the filing of formal charges,” the news release said.
The joint petition said Terrell “consents because he knows that if charges predicated upon the matters under investigation were filed, or if the matter was prosecuted, Respondent (Terrell) could not successfully defend against the charges.”
The parties agreed to the presence of aggravating and mitigating factors.
Listed as an aggravating factor was “substantial experience in the practice of law.”
Listed as mitigating factors were “absence of a prior disciplinary record; absence of a dishonest or selfish motive; cooperative attitude toward proceedings; chemical dependency; remorse.”
“The Office of Disciplinary Counsel and Respondent (Terrell) agree that Respondent knowingly failed to have in place safeguards necessary to protect client funds and knowingly failed to provide adequate supervision to his sole employee,” the Sanction Analysis states.
“The heartland of Respondent’s misconduct is that he failed to employ reasonable efforts to ensure that he had in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that Respondent’s non-lawyer employee’s conduct was compatible with Respondent’s professional obligations,” a joint memorandum in support of the petition states.
Terrell was placed on five years’ probation, and the news release said failure “to comply with the conditions of probation, or any misconduct during the probationary period, may be grounds for making the deferred suspension executory, or imposing additional discipline, as appropriate.”
The court ordered Terrell to pay all costs and expenses related to the case.
Five of the seven justices on the Supreme Court accepted the petition. The five areBernette Johnson, Greg Guidry, Jeannette Knoll, John Weimer and Jefferson Hughes III.
Justices Marcus Clark and Scott Crichton issued dissenting opinions. Clark spoke at Terrell’s inauguration as DA in January.
Clark wrote, “I find the sanction imposed upon respondent (Terrell) too harsh. I do not find that the respondent was even negligent. All agree that he did not even cause harm to the public. The actual harm was caused by criminal conduct of a third person. The only harm was to respondent. In light of the significant mitigating factors present, I am not in favor of any punishment that exceeds a public reprimand.”
Crichton wrote, “Upon close examination of the record, including the unique circumstances presented, I believe that a one year and one day deferred suspension is unduly harsh and a five-year probationary period is unwarranted.”
Terrell was elected district attorney in December to succeed James “Jam” Downs, who did not seek re-election.
Terrell defeated state Rep. Chris Hazel, R-Ball, in a runoff for DA after finishing first in the primary election in a close three-candidate race. Terrell was sworn in as DA on Jan. 12.
During the time of the campaign for DA, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s investigation of Terrell was confidential information and not publicly known.