Jeanne Winkler received the Nevada State Bar’s most serious sanction Monday night when a panel of judges unanimously recommended she be disbarred for life after stealing more than $260,000 from her client trust fund.
"What does a lawyer have to do to get disbarred?" Rob Bare, legal counsel for the Nevada State Bar, said in his closing statement. "That is this case."
Winkler in testimony delivered at the start of her hearing March 3 said she looted the fund, which has clients’ money and must be handled separately from other accounts, because she was caught up in an investment scheme that would have netted her up to $60 million.
On Monday, attorney Michael Warhola asked the panel for leniency, saying Winkler was under tremendous psychological stress and "deluded" when she misappropriated the funds.
Coincidentally, Winkler stole from her clients after she and her husband were victimized by an employee who, according to testimony in her previous hearing, stole more than $300,000 from their now defunct contracting business.
The bar’s decision came less than an hour after the panel, consisting of attorneys Tom Ryan, Robert Schumacher, and Lary Lamoreux and lay member Carrie Taylor, began deliberations.
Warhola in his defense of Winkler told the panel his client’s belief in the investment was spurred by Family Court Judge Steven Jones, who reportedly told her she "could make a lot of money fast." Jones and Winkler, who primarily practiced family law, are good friends.
It was Jones’ former brother-in-law, Thomas Cecrle, who Winkler said in her bar hearings pulled the scam. Winkler said it involved World War I bearer bonds, the Bush White House and U.S. senators, the Chinese government and airport lockers that allegedly held millions of dollars worth of the bonds.
How everything was supposed to tie together has never been explained. Cecrle has not been charged with any crime. Jones also lost money in the scam, Warhola said.
"Steven Jones recommended the investment to her," Warhola said. "She believed in it. She needed to believe in it. It was either take a chance and invest or commit suicide."
Warhola noted a psychologist who examined Winkler diagnosed her with major depression and with a personality disorder. Those underlying issues were exacerbated by the stress of being a theft victim, he said. "She had a mental breakdown."
Most of Winkler’s former clients have been repaid by the Nevada State Bar’s Client Security Fund. Twenty-five dollars of every attorney’s bar dues paid each year go into the fund, which was established to protect people victimized by attorneys, Bare said.
"A law license is a license of trust," he said March 3. "We as attorneys have to be held to a higher standard or else the public loses faith in us. We are the guardians of the justice system."
Bare in his closing argument noted the long list of charges against Winkler, which included 56 clients who had money in her trust fund, taking an inappropriate $115,000 loan from another client and practicing law after the Supreme Court suspended her license.
The case now goes to the Nevada Supreme Court for final disposition. The panel’s recommendation is not binding on the high court.
Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@review journal.com or 702-380-8135.