Former California state bar leader hit with ethics charges

  • Joe Dunn was fired in 2014 for alleged misconduct that included misusing bar funds
  • He could lose his law license

(Reuters) - The State Bar of California filed disciplinary charges against its own former executive director Joe Dunn earlier this week, claiming he wrongly spent bar funds on a trip to Mongolia and concealed opposition to a bill he wanted its board to sponsor while leading the organization.

Dunn, a former state senator who is now a lecturer and special adviser to the dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, could be disbarred if the State Bar Court upholds the charges, his lawyer said.

Dunn did not respond to requests for comment on the bar's accusations Friday, and an Irvine Law spokesperson said the school had no comment. Dunn’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, said that the bar's complaint was rife with conflicts of interest.

“The corruption is mind-boggling,” Geragos said. “We’re eight years removed. They have no basis to do this.”

The state bar fired Dunn in 2014 after an investigation found he overspent on international trips and misled bar leaders on policy issues during his four years as executive director. Dunn later filed a whistleblower suit against the bar, claiming he was fired because he had uncovered malfeasance within the organization. An arbitrator sided with bar officials in 2017.

The bar in January hired an outside law firm to probe its handling of past complaints against now-disbarred plaintiffs' lawyer Tom Girardi, including during Dunn's tenure. Girardi has been accused of taking settlement funds meant for the families of victims of the 2018 Lion Air crash and using them to fund a glitzy Hollywood lifestyle.

The latest charges against Dunn do not mention Girardi, though the Los Angeles Times has reported that the pair were friends.

The state bar's special deputy trial counsel's office, which handled the latest Dunn investigation, only works part-time, said program administrator Stacia Laguna. She said the state bar court process "can be lengthy," and involve amended charges, extensive settlement negotiations, and respondent requests for continuances. She added that she is "working on improving the timeliness of the program."

According to the charges filed in California’s state bar court on Tuesday, Dunn misled the bar’s board in 2014 when he told them there was no opposition to a bill that would allow the bar to bring civil actions against those engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. (That provision was later withdrawn.)

Dunn also misled the board when he told them no bar funds would be used for his 2014 trip to Mongolia, the complaint said.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at