Serial Tiller

When it comes to ripping people off, John Tiller and the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team just keep going and going

Like Tiller, Harris was slow to pay creditors, according to court files in St. Louis city and county, which show he has been sued at least a half-dozen times for not paying debts ranging from rent to bills for law books.

Unlike Tiller, Harris makes no excuses.

Harris says the same psychiatric problems that led to his 1994 reprimand also led to his disbarment two months ago. The Civil Rights Legal Defense Team was launched with good intentions, he says, but he admits that he failed to supervise the operation.

Roy Tompkins
It was during his time in Leavenworth that John Tiller says he realized inmates needed legal help: "I saw people beaten, I saw people abused, I saw people set up, I saw everything."
It was during his time in Leavenworth that John Tiller says he realized inmates needed legal help: "I saw people beaten, I saw people abused, I saw people set up, I saw everything."

"I was in charge of them and I was, quite honestly, in my own little world at that time," he says. "I was just not doing what I should have been doing in keeping a good supervision."

Candid, perhaps.

But cold comfort to clients of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team.


Those who know him say Tiller can be very persuasive. He certainly was in the early days of the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, which couldn't do legal work without a lawyer's name on the shingle.

"I mean, he would call me on an almost daily basis," Harris says. "I kept saying, 'No, no, no.' And finally I said, 'OK, let's give it a shot.' That was bad judgment on my part, extremely bad judgment. I honestly thought he was trying to make a change for the better."

Under Missouri law, lawyers are responsible for their paralegals. Harris says he went into business with Tiller trusting that he'd be able to handle most of the work. Indeed, Harris did not even maintain an office at the business. "He could run it, and I could rely on his doing it; I could supervise him in what he was doing," Harris says.

"The idea behind the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team is actually a pretty good idea," Harris continues. "The thing is, it just didn't work. His [Tiller's] idea was basically to have laymen who could do legal work a lot cheaper and use the paralegals. He happened to be a friend of mine. Basically I was doing a favor for a friend when I told him I'll do what has to be done to get us legal, [but] you've got to promise me certain things that didn't happen the way I envisioned them happening."

What kinds of things did he make Tiller promise?

"That he'd run this cleanly," Harris answers.

With Harris on board, Tiller bought newspaper advertisements -- on credit, of course -- and set up at least three Web sites touting the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. He also got a blurb on findlaw.com, which still lists Harris as a lawyer, even though he's been disbarred. From the beginning, Tiller targeted inmates and their families, promising top-quality legal work at bargain prices. Among the firm's specialties were habeas corpus writs, the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass for an inmate who's exhausted other legal appeals.

It all sounded good to folks like J. Downing ("No first name, just J.," she says) of Richland, Missouri, whose son Denzel is serving time for sodomy and child molestation. She insists that Denze is innocent, and she hired the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team to prove it in court. Downing also wanted Tiller's outfit to sue the Missouri Department of Corrections on the grounds that doctors were denying psychotropic medication to her son.

After spotting a listing on findlaw.com, she e-mailed the firm in July 2000 and received a quote of $3,500. That was too much. "Then John Tiller called me," Downing says. "He lowered the price to where I could handle it." So Downing sent $2,500 to the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. "They kept telling me they were going to do this, they were going to do that," she recalls.

Downing says she called the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team to confirm she had sent them a document and was told that her money only covered a habeas corpus writ, not a medical-malpractice suit. "I contacted John Tiller about it, and he agreed that I had the right idea, that it was to cover both," says Downing, who has receipts marked "balance paid in full" and noting the case as "criminal/medical." "He said he'd get back to me. He didn't. And from then on, I couldn't get an answer on the telephone. They just quit."

Downing wasn't alone.

According to the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, eighteen other clients hired the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team and received nothing for their money. In six other cases, clients represented by Harris, who had a practice outside the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team, received no services. All told, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team's victims lost at least $44,300, the state found.

The losses are likely greater. Five people not named by the state tell the Riverfront Times they paid between $2,000 and $6,000 to the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team and received little or nothing for their money. Several live outside Missouri, which may hurt their chances of recouping losses.

The state bar association has a compensation fund for people who've been scammed by lawyers, but it can take up to a year to collect. Any loss over $1,000 is repaid at the rate of 80 percent, and if there's not enough money in the fund, compensation is reduced. Furthermore, the fund is reserved for victims who had legal work performed within state boundaries.

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