Lawyer disbarred for submitting more than $14K in false expense reports to firm he co-founded
Maryland’s highest court has disbarred a lawyer who allegedly squandered the second chance that he was given when his law firm first discovered that he had falsified an expense report.
The Maryland Court of Appeals disbarred Bethesda, Maryland, lawyer Keith M. Bonner in a March 3 opinion, the Maryland Daily Record reports. Bonner is accused of falsely billing more than $14,000 to his former firm, Bonner Kiernan Trebach & Crociata.
Bonner’s first misstep happened in 2012, when he charged more than $3,000 to his law firm for his family’s trip to Bermuda, according to the opinion by Judge Brynja McDivitt Booth. When questioned about the expense, Bonner at first said he traveled to Bermuda at the invitation of a client.
He confessed to his firm after it made two discoveries. The first: Bonner had sent an email to the client’s CEO asking whether he would be in Bermuda during Bonner’s trip. The CEO told Bonner that he would not be there. The second: Bonner had charged two hotel rooms to his firm.
Bonner’s firm took no action against him after he repaid the money.
Bonner began submitting false expense reports again in 2015, seeking reimbursement for personal expenses “attempting to masquerade as business expenses,” the opinion said. In 2019, after he was confronted by the firm’s chief financial officer and two equity partners, Bonner submitted his resignation. He paid the firm $35,000 from an offset in his capital account as restitution to the firm.
Bonner had argued that the court should consider as a mitigating factor the emotional problems that he experienced during the misconduct, which the court described as “anger, frustration and feelings of entitlement and self-righteousness.”
Bonner was well respected, hardworking and a rainmaker, the court said. He enjoyed name recognition because his father had represented two government actors in the Watergate hearings. He thought that he was working more and generating more business than others.
Bonner thought that some equity partners weren’t contributing enough to the firm, leading to “less than harmonious” relationships, the opinion said. Routinely, he would not be invited to lunch. After he had a heart attack in 2012, none of the partners asked how he was doing when he returned to the office.
The court acknowledged that Bonner had developed self-awareness through counseling about the anger that drove his misconduct. But it refused to consider his emotional problems in mitigation.
“At bottom,” the court said, Bonner’s “anger and frustration resulted in him taking actions for dishonest and selfish purposes. Mr. Bonner’s contention that we should consider these emotional problems as a mitigating factor here employs some circular logic. We consider ‘dishonest or selfish motive’ as an aggravating factor, which was proven here. We will not cancel out the presence of this aggravating factor in mitigation simply because the dishonest and selfish motives were fueled by feelings of anger, frustration and self-righteousness.”
The court also refused to consider as a mitigating factor the consequences that Bonner had already suffered, including a tarnished reputation, loss of his ownership interest in the law firm, and a second disciplinary case for the same acts in Washington, D.C.
“We will not recognize the natural consequences of intentional misconduct as constituting a mitigating factor that would militate against the imposition of a more serious sanction,” the court said. “To do so could potentially create an illogical ‘seesaw’ effect—where more egregious misconduct that results in greater adverse natural consequences leads to a reduced sanction because we consider the adverse consequences as a mitigating factor.”
But the court recognized other mitigating factors, including that Bonner had no prior discipline, he had remorse for his conduct, he accepted responsibility by repaying the firm, and he had cooperated in the disciplinary proceedings. He also enjoyed a good professional reputation, and he had shown traits such as kindness, generosity, empathy and compassion.
Nonetheless, the mitigating factors “do not tip the scales in favor of a sanction less than disbarment,” the court said.
Bonner “knew that his conduct was wrong. When his misdeeds were discovered in 2012, he had an opportunity to right the ship. Instead, in 2015, he veered the ship back onto the wrong course and continued to steer it awry until he hit ground in 2019,” the court said.
Bonner did not immediately respond to an ABA Journal voicemail seeking comment.