In July 2004, Melvin Sims went to the District’s annual tax sale, where houses and lots are auctioned off for the price of unpaid taxes. He put down $4,287 and received certificates for two pieces of property, which he hoped to give to his grandkids. To close the deal, he needed an attorney to file some paperwork in D.C. Superior Court.
The first time he tried to get legal help, he was scammed. A man at church had persuaded him and his wife to buy into a prepaid legal service for a few hundred bucks, so Sims called the number for the service. He expected that someone on the other line would be ready to do the work he’d already paid for. Not so. The service just referred him to an expensive Baltimore attorney.
Then Sims received a form letter from John W. Stewart Jr., Esq. Stewart picked up Sims’ address from the tax-sale purchase and wanted to represent him. “Please understand, this firm is not a cookie factory churning out hundreds of cases merely to make money off the client,” Stewart wrote. “We believe in building relationships and give personal attention to each client. We do not bill you for calls or visits to us, instead we encourage you to contact us anytime and as often as you may need in order to stay in touch.”
This was just what Sims needed to hear. One day in February 2005, he visited Stewart’s 15th Street NW office for a free consultation.
Stewart seemed kind and easy to approach. He knew enough about real-estate law to impress Sims, who is an ANC commissioner in his Congress Heights neighborhood. All Stewart had to do, he explained, was to find the previous property owners through a title search and sue them in D.C. Superior Court. At the end of the process, Sims would have deeds. For a flat fee of $4,200, Stewart would handle it all.
Sims, now 70, left the office certain his grandchildren would enjoy the investments he’d arranged. “I paid the fee, and I don’t see what else he would want,” Sims says. “All he’s got to do is submit the papers.” He also left with a couple of bad impressions. One was Stewart’s appearance: “fat and greasy.” The other was Stewart’s insistence on quoting from a sermon; it was a ploy, Sims felt, to gain his trust.
Sims expected the process to take a couple of months. But seven months, eight months, nine months passed without a word from Stewart. The client got anxious. Why hadn’t Stewart let him know about his cases? Would he actually get the property he bought?
Forget the hundreds he’d lost before. Now he stood to lose thousands if Stewart didn’t come through. So he called. He called again. And again. Each time he was told his attorney was busy or out of the office. One day, he pretended to be a potential client, and the receptionist put him through. Sims identified himself, thinking the lawyer would have to explain why the case had not been filed, apologize, and get working in a hurry.
But Stewart said: “Sims? Sims?”
Sims’ story is one of 16 in a complaint filed by the Office of Bar Counsel against Stewart. He is accused of taking money from clients and ignoring their cases, causing them to lose what they had paid to buy land and houses in the District’s yearly tax sale. The real number of wronged clients, however, is far greater: 109 attempts to claim property were dismissed through Stewart’s neglect.
The Bar Counsel’s office enforces discipline for the D.C. Bar. It has a small fund for client relief, but it’s too little to pay their lost money—no one has added up the sum, but it would reach into the thousands. The most the Bar Counsel can do is work toward Stewart’s disbarment. It’s been trying.
Real-estate attorney Keith Smith occasionally ran into Stewart in the mornings, when all the lawyers who worked tax-sale cases would mill around the same courtroom. “He knew what he was doing,” Smith said.
In 2003, Stewart took over a colleague’s office at 733 15th St. NW. Down the hall was a title-search firm headed by Ken Cummins, who has been both a private investigator and this publication’s first Loose Lips columnist. Cummins shared Smith’s impression of Stewart and saw no reason not to refer potential clients to him. Over a two-year period, Cummins passed along regular leads.
The first step in claiming tax-sale property is to get someone to do a title search, which goes for a fixed fee of $300 in the District. The next step is to file a lawsuit against the previous owner of the property.
Between his colleague’s old cases, Cummins’ referrals, and his own advertisements, Stewart took on quite a caseload shortly after assuming control of his colleague’s practice. But the “we” in the flier that grabbed Sims’ attention was actually just him: He was alone in his office. Stewart had a receptionist, but he didn’t have the support staff that keeps sole practitioners running.
Cummins wondered how he managed to bill clients. Smith wondered how he could do so many cases with so little help.
“I know he had a lot, but I don’t know what kind of staff he had,” said Smith, who has three full-time employees. “He’s a good guy, but he got in over his head.”
Because he had to appear in the same courtroom, Smith saw a few of Stewart’s cases dismissed because of missed deadlines. “I had got calls from clients asking me to take over cases that he was working on,” Smith said. “I can’t tell you exactly what was wrong.”
Tax-sale cases entail simple legal work. They’re almost brainless, as a matter of fact. If there’s a strategy involved, it’s time management: A lawyer must meet all the deadlines.
Take the Sims case. After he bought the properties, he had one year to sue the previous owner and prevent him from being able to hang on to the deeds by coming up with the owed taxes. If the owner ponies up, Sims likely loses the properties but can still file for a refund from the D.C. government. He could also get his legal fees back—if all the paperwork is filed on time. If not, Sims stands to lose everything he paid.
After he got Stewart on the phone by a ruse, Sims could not believe the lawyer didn’t remember him. Stewart stayed on the line, though, and after a moment collected himself and explained that there was no trouble. Sims would receive his legal work and his properties. Not to worry. All would turn out fine.
But Sims had to continue bugging Stewart to get his papers filed. The lawyer filed them late, but he stamped them so they appeared to have been on time, according to Bar Counsel. He didn’t bother to send them to his client; he just left copies at his office for Sims to pick up.
Now Sims could follow his case on the court docket. On the day his case was supposed to be heard, he walked into D.C. Superior Court, even though he hadn’t heard from his lawyer.
It was early. Though no one was in the courtroom, the posted calendar showed 50 cases that Stewart was handling. That gave Sims enough time to spend an hour over coffee in the cafeteria. When he returned, the courtroom was dark. He begged a clerk to tell him what happened to that calendar that was as wide as his outstretched arms.
All the cases were dismissed.
Viola Hilton, another grandparent, another client, got familiar with Stewart’s MO. In April 2005, she began a diary of her attempts to reach Stewart. Her handwritten pages, photocopied in the Bar Counsel’s exhibits, show the progress of her doubts:
Today after 4 or 5 calls to Atty Stewart’s office with no success—I thought it necessary to start a diary on him—Today I ask that my call be return with a date he filed for foreclosures. stay tuned.
I called again at 1:45 PM spoke to ——— his Sec, ask to speak to atty Stewart a long pause, was ask for my # and told he would return my call.
Placed a call to atty Stewart’s office—The telephone was not in service—Disconnected. …
Where do I go now???
She went to Bar Counsel in 2006 and learned that the office was already investigating her lawyer. He’d been suspended from practicing in D.C. and would have to appear in front of a hearing committee of the Board on Professional Responsibility. In hearings scheduled for early 2007, the committee would determine whether to move toward disbarring him, making it all but impossible for him to represent clients in the District again.
When the bar hearings began, Hilton got to tell the committee what her lawyer had done to her. Stewart was out of town, and he’d been participating in this hearing by cell phone. The reception was bad. All that came through the line was a distorted gurgle.
The committee took a lunch break. Stewart said he would call back at the specified time, but he didn’t. As she slid her necklace up and down, Hilton seemed angrier about this than about anything else. She testified in a Smurf-blue dress, blue earrings, red fingernails and lipstick, a black cap, and thick glasses that magnified her eyes.
Julia Porter, assistant Bar Counsel, led her through her statement.
“Did you make a diary entry for every single call to Mr. Stewart’s office?” Porter asked.
“Maybe not for every single call,” Hilton said. “I always trusted [his secretary] that he was always in court, or that he was in the office. I had no reason to wonder if anything was going wrong.”
Hilton said that when she started to sense things were amiss, her daughter visited Stewart’s office. “She said the building was under remodeling or something to that effect,” Hilton said. “There were no offices in the building. And the plush office I had gone to with Mr. Stewart wasn’t there anymore.”
Hilton told the committee she wished to ask one question. The chairman nodded.
“Why isn’t he here today?” she asked. “Why isn’t he on the phone today? Maybe he doesn’t want to face his senior, an elderly lady, from whom he took money?”
As for Sims, he started weeping when he took the stand earlier that day. His head shook, he gasped, and his forehead wrinkled. He took off his glasses, wiped his eyes and his nose. Porter asked if he was OK; he said yes. “I didn’t know very much,” he said. “All I knew was that Mr. Stewart had stolen my money. That’s very clear. He had stole my money, he had blatantly stole my money…and that have affected me very, very much.”
Sims’ cane was beneath his right arm. He leaned on it when he spoke.
This time, Stewart was on the phone. He had not retained another lawyer to represent him, so he had the odd task of cross-examining his own clients.
He asked particulars about their dealings: “Do you recall that I took my time to give you a full estimation of my costs?…Did I bill you or collect from you any additional fees?…Did I offer to do the title search for you?” Members of the committee furrowed their brows.
As he examined other former clients, Stewart asked the same questions. He asked Ann Ellis Carthern, one of the few whose cases he managed to file on time, whether she still believed that she hadn’t benefited from his services. Carthern answered, “That was after I filed my complaint with the Bar Counsel.”
Outside the courtroom, Hilton was livid that he hadn’t faced her by phone. “It’s a wonder nobody has caught him on a dark night and beaten him up,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of things I don’t understand, but the world goes on.”
When a preacher named Abraham Mitchum took the stand, Stewart made amends. “I just want to apologize to you for having put you through the difficulties you have been through. I can only imagine what you feel,” he said. “My words may not mean much at this point, but that is all I have to offer you.”
Mitchum replied, “Apology accepted.”
On March 20, the Bar Counsel held its last hearing. This time, Stewart was present, sort of. At a break in the proceedings, he fell asleep.
He leaned back in the metal chairs in the hallway of D.C. Superior Court Building B. His hands rested on the bulge of his stomach. His head was touching the wall; he snored, and the snores seemed to wake him. He’d declined to sit for an interview, but I figured he could sit for a portrait. So as he closed his eyes to hide in plain sight, I sat beside him and began to sketch. For 10 or 15 minutes he didn’t notice. Then something woke him up, and he looked at me.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“I’m drawing you.”
He smiled and closed his eyes again.
“Where are you working now?” I asked.
He mumbled something.
“What did you do with the money?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. When we got back into the room, Porter was on a hair trigger, tapping her shoe in impatience, ready to tear the man’s words apart. But like Hilton and Sims, like the 13 others who testified against him, like the nearly 100 others whose cases were dismissed without a word, and like me, Porter did not get her answers. Stewart wouldn’t take the stand.
He wanted to make a statement, though, and despite Porter’s protests, the committee let him. He took deep breaths, rubbed his mouth, rolled his eyes, and spoke.
“A situation occurred within 2004, and it affected my work,” he said. “I advertised in 2003. I advertised in 2005. I didn’t advertise in 2004. I realized during the course of the year in ’05 that…work was getting really hard.”
“I don’t do drugs,” he continued. “I don’t drink alcohol, any of that.…My home life is fine…I don’t have family problems.”
No one could ask what Stewart meant by his problem; he wasn’t under oath and subject to cross-examination. He did say he went to counseling for this unnamed problem, but that wasn’t enough. Through the fall of 2005, he simply stopped work.
“My promise to each of [my clients] was simple: ‘You can’t lose on this,’” he said. “I was at a place now where I was supposed to take that hit, and I couldn’t take the hit…so it was very difficult to deal with these clients.”
He sat high on the front of his chair. His voice faltered several times, but he wasn’t crying; in fact, he kept snickering as though he was amused at his failure. The committee asked him why he apologized to Mitchum.
“Sitting across from my clients and…listening to what they went through made it very difficult for me to not say something,” he said. “I figure it was time to face them and apologize…I owe them. I owe them my apologies, and I owe them their fees back….It’s been hard to live with the fact that I let them down. I didn’t finish my work.…I do know that someday or way, somehow, piece by piece…I’ll be able to reimburse some of them.”
“Like I said, personal problems are personal problems, but I stand up here to take responsibility.”
Porter was incensed. “They placed their trust in Mr. Stewart, and we tell members of the public every day that lawyers are people of integrity,” she told the committee. “Actions speak louder than words. Start making restitution. Start making it today, even if it’s only a dollar. He has given them nothing.” But she couldn’t get his words stricken from the record. She couldn’t get back the thousands that Stewart had spent until his own checks were bouncing.
The committee made a preliminary finding that Stewart was guilty on most of the counts, but he would have time to argue further in briefs. He walked out of the courtroom. Bar Counsel will file its brief Thursday, May 3. Stewart has until June 4 to respond. Then the committee will prepare its report, a process that often takes longer than the allotted 60 days. Next, the full board will review the case. If it decides to disbar him, the case moves up one last rung, to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
“It’s always a matter of years,” Porter says. “It’s just a question of how many years.”
Without addictions or family problems, why would a clean, married, intelligent man commit professional suicide? With Stewart, there is one likely explanation.
Stewart, 45, is Liberian. During the civil war that tore the country apart in the 1980s, Stewart came to the United States. He did his B.A. at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., and he got his J.D. at New York Law School. Liberia, however, is the first place he was licensed to practice; his mother is a lawyer there, too.
He started out working admiralty cases with the Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs. In 1998 he was admitted to practice in New York state, and he joined a law firm in Rochester with two Liberian colleagues: Charles Brumskine and Jonathan Koffa. Each of these men wanted better for their wounded homeland, and they had a plan: Brumskine was running for the presidency in the country’s 2004 elections. He was a former Liberian senator who had once been close to dictator Charles Taylor; he told people that he had rushed out of the country by night when he learned Taylor wanted him dead.
Brumskine also had a practice in D.C., the practice Stewart took over. As Stewart worked his friend’s cases, he also promoted his campaign, reaching out to Liberian expatriates in the metro area. This was not a small task. Stewart was doing a lot for a cause that meant everything to the people involved. Cummins remembers seeing his colleague one night at a Liberian political seminar at a hotel in Maryland. Among the excitement, the enthusiastic talk, and the debates, it could have been a DNC meeting.
Liberian politics had great effect on the professional life of each lawyer. Brumskine had to leave work unfinished stateside so he could campaign in his homeland. (He came in third in the election.) Koffa embezzled from clients in North Carolina and slipped the money to projects that he thought would help Brumskine win, according to The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Now he’s in a federal cell in Kentucky.
And Stewart, busy promoting Brumskine, would sit in his office through the afternoon, reading the news from Liberia online, while the cases lay in piles on the floor.
“Usually when lawyers get in trouble in this town, it’s drugs, it’s alcoholism, they have some personal problem,” Cummins says. “He might have some personal problem, but he didn’t seem to.”
Of course, he might have a lot of problems if he meets any of his former clients in a dark alley.
“It’s a good thing he did get away that mornin’, I tell you. Yes, indeed,” Sims says. “If I’d caught him in the courthouse right then and there I would have given it to him.”
Stewart says he knows he needs to pay back his clients’ fees. Sims is still waiting.