The Ethics Cop

Mike Reid knows firsthand what it's like to bend the rules

Eight years out of law school, Michael C. Reid was in deep trouble.

Lawyers often are bearers of bad news, but this particular lawyer from Marshall, Mo., had a problem just saying no. Mike Reid simply couldn't bring himself to tell clients they weren't going to get as much money as they thought they deserved. Sometimes a case just wasn't strong enough, and the settlement he negotiated was a pittance compared with the original claim. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a judgment he'd won was uncollectable. Always, the clients wanted to get paid.

Rather than disappoint, Reid coughed up the cash, whether his clients were entitled to the money or not. At first, he dipped into his own bank account. Eventually, his money ran out. So Reid began taking money that wasn't his. In one case, he gave clients $21,000 that a friend had given him as a loan and to invest in securities. In another, he doled out $16,000 from a probate account. Part of that money went to a client who'd won a judgment Reid couldn't collect. Another $6,500 went to a client who thought he'd won $8,000. In fact, Reid had negotiated a settlement of $1,500.

Realizing this couldn't go on forever, Reid contacted his lawyer and checked himself into a Kansas City psychiatric facility, where he remained for five weeks. A psychiatrist concluded he suffered from chronic depression and a "rather extreme personality disorder" that caused his transgressions. In May 1979, Reid surrendered his license to practice law. He swore he'd repaid all the diverted money. "I had a serious medical-psychological problem for which I am seeking help," Reid wrote in an affidavit to the state Supreme Court. "I will recover."

Reid's road to recovery was paved, at least in part, by taxpayers. One month before he surrendered his law license, he was hired as an administrative assistant at the Missouri Department of Corrections. Within three years, he was promoted to legal counsel with the DOC, even though his supervisors knew he had been disbarred and couldn't appear in court or do other legal work requiring bar membership.

In September 1982 -- nine months after he was promoted to legal counsel -- Reid got his license back. A supervisor at the DOC testified on his behalf in hearings before the advisory committee of the state bar administration, an arm of the Missouri Supreme Court responsible for disciplining lawyers. By all appearances, Reid was a changed man, someone who'd been through tough times and redeemed himself. But appearances can be deceiving. Even as the Supreme Court was considering his application for reinstatement, Reid harbored a dark secret.

About three months before getting his license back, Reid had agreed to handle a divorce for a Sedalia woman. She ended up an unwitting bigamist thanks to Reid, who pretended to be a lawyer and made matters even worse by trying to cover up his deceit. Bar administration records show Reid repeatedly lied to his client and filed court documents with phony signatures.

The woman turned to Reid in June 1982 because she couldn't afford a lawyer. A mutual friend told her Reid was an attorney with the state who could help her in his spare time. After speaking with the woman, Reid went to his supervisor, James C. Martin, lead chief counsel for the DOC, and asked whether he'd handle the case. Martin, who knew Reid had been disbarred, agreed to help and didn't hear anything more about the matter until he received an answer to the woman's divorce petition, a couple of months later, from the husband's attorney. But Martin, who had never spoken to the woman, hadn't filed a petition on her behalf. And the signature on the dissolution petition filed in Pettis County court wasn't his. Rather than ask Reid why he'd gotten an answer to a petition he'd never filed, Martin asked him, "Do you want me to follow up on it, or do you want me to continue to work with it?" Reid told him, "Just give it to me."

Less than two months after getting his law license back, Reid told the woman she had a court date to finalize the divorce. He told her to stand outside a courtroom during a hearing at which a judge supposedly approved a divorce settlement. After about 45 minutes behind closed doors, Reid emerged and told his client she was officially divorced and had gotten everything she wanted, including $200 a month in child support.

Exactly what happened while the woman waited in the hallway isn't clear, but there had been no hearing on the case that day, the divorce was not finalized and no child-support order had been entered. For the next eight months, Reid paid the woman $200 a month out of his own pocket, with the checks usually coming late -- he told her the money had to be processed through the court system before she could get it. On one occasion, a check bounced. When the woman told Reid she was going to remarry, he promised to wear bells to the wedding, even though he knew she wasn't really divorced. And so the woman married again in May 1983, after receiving a photocopy of a phony divorce decree from Reid. The court clerk's signature on the decree was forged. The judge's name was typed in the space where he was supposed to sign.

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