Ben Soto is a consummate D.C. insider: He’s the head of a successful title company, he dabbles in development, he raises money for top politicians (particularly Mayor Muriel Bowser), he sits on the board of a prominent local bank, and he’s even a licensed attorney. For now, at least.
A massively complex, seven-year-long case winding its way through the legal disciplinary process could strip Soto of his law license (temporarily or permanently), as court investigators allege that he improperly altered documents to save a client roughly $12,000 on a tax bill. The details are mind-numbingly boring, but the case happens to involve one of the most well-known bars in the whole city: Madam’s Organ in Adams Morgan, which lay at the center of the real estate transaction that landed Soto in hot water.
The D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility, which adjudicates complaints against lawyers, issued a report Wednesday recommending that Soto have his license suspended for six months for violating ethics rules (claiming, essentially, that he lied in his dealings with other attorneys on the case). That won’t be the final word, however, as the D.C. Court of Appeals will make the ultimate call after listening to more arguments from Soto and the court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which has been investigating the matter and prosecutes cases before the BPR. Attorneys there would rather see Soto disbarred entirely.
Soto and his lawyers admit that he made some mistakes in this process, but they say they were innocent ones. It’d be a major blow to Soto’s company, Premium Title & Escrow, if he were out of commission for six months and pretty bad for business, too, if he were described as a liar in court, so he’s arguing for a full dismissal of these charges. That would also avoid some bad press for Bowser (who has already endured one Soto scandal, after his efforts at FreshPAC drew a ton of scrutiny back in 2015).
“What happened here was not something done with some evil intent, and nobody claims that,” says Peter Kolker, Soto’s attorney in the case. “It was just a miscommunication problem.”
But that’s not quite how the disciplinary counsel sees it. They’ve argued repeatedly that Soto knew what he was doing was wrong, and lied about his actions several times as their investigation played out. Madam’s Organ owner Bill Duggan is even more steamed at Soto, arguing he’s actually cost him thousands of dollars in additional taxes through maneuvers that were “sloppy at every point.”
This whole dispute dates back to 2012, according to court documents, when Duggan hired Soto to help him sort out some devilishly complicated issues with his bar. Duggan has controlled the property along 18th Street NW since 1996, but never actually held title. He’d only managed to start the bar with the help of a wealthy friend, Daniel Solomon, who bought up several loans against the property to gain control of the building from its old owner, Jack Littlejohn.
But Duggan wanted to take out a $1.1 million loan against the property, so he’d need to formally become its owner before that could move forward, according to the documents. Littlejohn had since died, but Duggan was able to contact his son, Homer, to try and sort out these title issues.
Homer Littlejohn was willing to transfer the title to Duggan as long as he paid for a probate attorney to manage issues with the estate, which Duggan agreed to do. Soto helped draw up the documents to make all of this official and hand the deed from Littlejohn to Duggan. In a decision that would become very crucial later, Soto listed the consideration involved in this transaction as “$0” on the legal documents, since no money had changed hands between the two.
Here’s the problem: D.C. taxes property transactions like this, even when there isn’t any cash involved. In these cases, the city calculates the tax based on the assessed value of the property in question instead of taking a percentage of the sale price. Madam’s Organ sits in a high-demand neighborhood, so the building was assessed at about $857,000, generating a tax bill of about $24,900 for the transaction.
That caught Duggan off guard. In February 2013, he dashed off an email to one of Soto’s employees, calling the taxes “ridiculous” and insisting on some sort of change, according to the court documents. Since he and Solomon bought the loans against the property, paid property taxes, and made improvements to the building over the years, Duggan argued he ought to get credit for all that spending in the transaction.
Soto obliged and worked with Duggan to come up with a figure reflecting that spending. They found he’d paid off about $350,000 in loans on the property and “guesstimate[d]” that he’d spent another $100,000 for taxes and other expenses, so Soto revised the documents and listed $450,000 as the new sale price for the deal. That dropped Duggan’s tax bill to about $13,000.
Soto claims he made these calculations in good faith and earnestly tried to come up with the correct figure. But the various bodies investigating the issue have raised doubts about that assertion, with some (but not all) arguing that his decisions about how to calculate that amount were legally questionable. Duggan also believes his methods were suspect, and claims that Soto whipped up the $450,000 figure without relying much on his input.
“[Soto] knew that inserting a false consideration amount into the deed was illegal,” according to a Jan. 5 report from a committee of lawyers assembled to examine the case and issue a recommendation for the Board on Professional Responsibility. “[Soto] admittedly could not point to records showing his calculation of the $450,000 consideration amount was accurate, and [he] acknowledged that his files in 2013 had recorded tax payments for the property in excess of $100,000 from 2002-2012, but he relied on what Mr. Duggan had told him.”
To make matters worse, Soto never told the attorney representing Littlejohn, Ara Washington, about this change (a failing that Soto himself admits). He even altered deed documents after Washington already reviewed them, which investigators believe was an especially egregious step.
When Washington headed to probate court to close out the Littlejohn estate in 2014, the judge was quite confused that her records showing a $0 sale and the deed Soto filed (with the $450,000 figure) didn’t match. The board argued in its Aug. 10 ruling that this “seriously interfered in the administration of justice,” an ethics violation, because it forced the probate court to spend extra time hashing out this discrepancy.
It all led the court to contact the disciplinary counsel’s office, triggering this investigation into Soto. Investigators there believe Soto “knowingly omitted details of a complex transaction” in their interactions with him and tried to cover up his actions over the course of 2015 and 2016 (and the board agreed with them on this front, per its report). Soto also denies these points, and claims that it was an “inadvertent error” that he didn’t contact Washington.
The disciplinary counsel ultimately charged Soto with all these ethics violations in November 2020 and the case has played out slowly ever since. Loose Lips was a bit puzzled that things should move quite so slowly (even considering the appeals court’s reputation for glacial proceedings) but apparently that is par for the course in cases like this one. Hamilton Fox, the head of the disciplinary counsel’s office, says his staff is dealing with a “substantial backlog” of cases and the complex nature of this particular matter has only gummed up the works more.
“Our entire system is cumbersome and way too slow,” Fox wrote in an email. “I am sure, without empirical evidence to prove it, that we are the slowest jurisdiction in the country.”
The dispute is likely to drag on a while longer. Both sides will likely file “exceptions” to the board’s report, disputing its findings of fact and recommendations, and then argue the case before the appeals court, which gets the final say on Soto’s fate. That means the matter will have to wait until the court schedules a hearing and issues a ruling, a process that could take many months.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, it doesn’t exactly paint a flattering picture of Soto. The court investigators, at least, believe he was willing to break the law to save a client a few bucks, then lie about it afterward (though the various bodies reviewing the matter disagree on the exact severity of his transgressions). Add in his past legal censure in 2004 (a Maryland court caught him managing title transactions without being licensed to practice law there) and the campaign finance irregularities that cropped up in his time working for both Bowser and former Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd and a bit of a pattern starts to emerge.
Yet Soto has never faced any serious consequences for all the time he’s spent in legal jeopardy. He still gets to sit on the board of well-known local lender EagleBank (a company spokesperson declined to comment on this issue), his development firm regularly wins business on city-owned land, and he remains a fixture on the political circuit. Even with all his baggage, everyone from Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau to Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie to Bowser herself accepted checks from Soto this year.
And why should LL expect anything different? If Jack Evans can launch a comeback, then surely Ben Soto isn’t going anywhere.
This article was updated with comments from Duggan.