by Tena Starr
copyright the Chronicle June 20, 2012
A former Orleans County prosecutor is spending 15 years in prison in Arizona for bilking clients by pretending he could help them with divorce cases. Despite the fact that he’d been disbarred in Vermont, he presented himself as qualified to perform services that he either couldn’t, or didn’t. He’s believed to have earned at least $1-million through fraudulent behavior and to have had hundreds of victims.
According to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona, Gary Karpin exhibited a romantic interest in some of his clients and wooed them with the appearance of professionalism as well as his own personal charm. He presented himself as a lawyer or mediator and charged absurd prices for services he often could not legally perform.
In one case, he charged a woman $87,000 for a relatively simple divorce that should have cost no more than $2,000. The woman testified at his trial that she’d thought he was legitimately able to provide legal services and that he had her best interests at heart.
Most recently, the state has located some of Mr. Karpin’s assets, and he has been ordered to pay his victims back for their losses.
Mr. Karpin, who was an assistant state’s attorney in Orleans County under Phil White, was disbarred here for unethical behavior in the early 1990s.
According to the state’s attorney’s office in Arizona, he was found guilty in 2008 on 24 counts of theft and accepting fees and failing to perform promised legal services. The case dragged on, largely due to his own attempts to delay it, but he was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay nearly $240,000 in restitution to 25 victims, although he apparently had many more.
“After being disbarred in Vermont, Karpin relocated to the Phoenix area in 1996 and presented himself as an attorney specializing in divorce, despite not being licensed to practice law in Arizona,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a press release last week.
“He attracted clients with ads promising ‘divorce with dignity’ at affordable rates. Over a nine-year period, Karpin is believed to have victimized more than 300 people by charging sometimes exorbitant fees for legal services that were poorly, and frequently never, performed.”
Mr. Karpin tried to transfer all his assets to avoid paying restitution to victims, but the Asset Recovery Bureau of the Maricopa State’s Attorney’s Office found $197,000 that it plans to distribute among his victims, Mr. Montgomery’s office said.
“He did a number of things to create the impression that he was a lawyer, or licensed to provide legal services,” Jerry Cobb, public information officer for the Maricopa Attorney’s Office, said in an interview.
For instance, a number of credentials were framed and hung on the walls of his tidy office. “He also used letterhead stationery that had a legal look and had the name of a firm,” Mr. Cobb said. “He also used the name of a firm, or a couple, with which he was not actually associated. He did a number of things like that.
“This was a big case here in terms of the number of victims. There were something like 40 named victims, but we have statements from more than 300 people who claimed he defrauded them. The news last week was that the victims are now finally receiving restitution.”
Mr. Karpin had repeatedly been told by the bar association to “cease and desist,” Mr. Cobb said. However, there was no mechanism to actually make him.
“He’s a very personable guy, very professional in his demeanor,” Mr. Cobb said. “He’s very good at getting people’s confidence. He was victimizing people when they were at their most vulnerable. There were at least 30 victims with whom he had some sort of romantic connection. Either he dated them, or he made amorous advances.”
Although Mr. Karpin has not been accused of any kind of sexual abuse, he did take advantage of his female victims’ vulnerability, Mr. Cobb said.
He also took advantage of the fact that people don’t usually talk about what they’re paying for a lawyer, and many people clearly did not know that they were being charged exorbitant fees.
“He was a real nasty case,” Mr. Cobb said. “It was a combination of his art of deception and his ability to gain people’s confidence when they were in need of help and not terribly knowledgeable. He exploited that confidential relationship. He took a personal interest in many of his clients, and you become more and more trusting and less and less willing to suspect someone.”
The woman who was charged $87,000 ended up getting a note from a friend who suggested she Google Mr. Karpin, saying it appeared he had been disbarred. She did and was shocked by his history.
Mr. Cobb said that after the case became public hundreds of people called, equally shocked to learn that Mr. Karpin was not, in fact, a lawyer. He said that, as far as his office has been able to calculate, Mr. Karpin earned “in the neighborhood of $1-million in ill gotten gains.”
The young Vermont Law School graduate launched his career in 1987, practicing in Maine, then in Vermont, where he worked briefly as an assistant prosecutor before setting up private practice.
In 1991, following a series of complaints and questionable incidents, Vermont’s Professional Conduct Board strongly recommended that he be disbarred.
“The panel is convinced that the depth and breadth of respondent’s unethical conduct is so significant and wide-ranging that he is a threat to the public, the profession, the courts, and his clients,” the three-member panel wrote in its report. “The only factors present in mitigation are his absence of a prior disciplinary record and his inexperience in the practice of law. Since, however, the violations span nearly the entire time he has been a member of the Vermont bar, the absence of prior violations is of little relevance.
“On the other hand, almost every aggravating factor articulated in the American Bar Association Standards is present here: dishonest and selfish motives, a pattern of misconduct, multiple offenses, submission of false evidence, refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct….”
The Vermont cases included a Jay couple who suffered damages because of a malfunctioning furnace and hot water heater. The couple was paid by both the furnace installer and the insurance company, but Mr. Karpin told them not to worry about it because the second payment “covered a different loss.” When the insurance company realized what had happened, Mr. Karpin tried to blame his clients for the double payment, the Professional Conduct Board’s report said.
In another case, he went ahead with a settlement with a car dealer that his client didn’t want to take after the lawyer had dragged the matter out for six months with no action. He was also accused of lying to his client.
Mr. White complained that soon after Mr. Karpin left his office, in private practice he took on a client who he had prosecuted in his earlier role, a conflict of interest and violation of ethics rules.
It’s unclear if Mr. Karpin’s behavior in Vermont was the result of incompetence, laziness, deception, or all three.
In Arizona, however, there’s far less doubt.
He displayed framed certificates showing he’d been accepted to practice law in Vermont and Maine. He called himself a divorce mediator who prepared legal documents and promised to resolve disputes before the couple went to court.
A weekly newspaper in Arizona, the Phoenix New Times, wrote about Mr. Karpin’s activities early on and posted an e-mail from him saying that since he’d been advertising his business with the paper in the hope of promoting it, he expected no adverse publicity.
However, he was well known to the prosecutor’s office, Mr. Cobb said. That office made a video (posted on the Chronicle’s website www.bartonchronicle.com) about him. In it, one of his victims testifies how she felt duped. Also, a prosecutor says Mr. Karpin lived a fine lifestyle with a Corvette convertible as well as a $750,000 home that was nearly paid off.
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]