from law for breaches
Melodie Aduja failed
to keep client money
separate from her own
The state Supreme Court has suspended former state Sen. Melodie Aduja from practicing law for three years for mishandling a client's trust account.
According to an order filed yesterday by the Supreme Court, Aduja's commingling of funds resulted in several violations of the court's rules of professional conduct.
"I believe that the penalties are harsh in light of the relatively minor infraction that had occurred," Aduja said yesterday. "My clients suffered no harm, and I believe I served them well.
"Nevertheless, I will abide by the Supreme Court decision and put this behind me. I intend to seek reinstatement in 18 months. In the meantime, I will concentrate my time and energy on my family, especially my two young children, Amber and William, who are 5 and 6 years old, and my father," Aduja said.
Democrat Aduja lost her re-election bid last year after coming under fire for questionable campaign spending reports.
Last month, the court also suspended state Rep. Alex Sonson for three months for committing numerous ethical violations, including misappropriating a client's funds.
Aduja's attorney, William Harrison, said Aduja's violations came while she was dealing with the drug problems of her ex-husband and also nursing her ailing mother.
"When someone goes through family and personal problems, it can contribute to some law office mismanagement, not maintaining her law office properly," Harrison said.
Court rules state that lawyers must set up a special bank account for clients' money and not mix it with their own. The court said Aduja failed to do that.
The order, signed by all five state Supreme Court justices, noted that "there are strong mitigating circumstances in this case."
Besides not practicing law for three years, Aduja must also take a law office audit program and pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility exam at her own expense.
Harrison said Aduja "has taken full responsibility for this matter."
No clients' money was lost, according to Harrison.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates allegations of attorney misconduct and sends serious cases to the Supreme Court, said Aduja had money from several clients in one bank account and then failed to put all of a client's retainer into the account.
At the same time, Aduja repeatedly used some of the trust fund account money as her own, according to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, in violation of court rules. She also used her own funds for clients' expenses.
Interest on the account was supposed to go to the Hawaii Justice Foundation, according to court rules, but $2.73 in interest was never paid, and the court ordered Aduja to pay that to the foundation.
A former client of Aduja's, Barry Markowitz, sent a letter to the court saying Aduja had helped him and treated him fairly. Markowitz said Aduja had represented him even after other attorneys refused to take his case.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel said, however, that the repeated withdrawals and unrecorded deposits showed a "pattern of misconduct and multiple offenses."
It noted that factors in mitigation of the offenses included "personal or emotional problems, and remorse."
Last year, Aduja also was investigated by the state Campaign Spending Commission, and agreed to pay $4,500 in fines after an investigation into her 2002 spending reports showed that she had not fully reported her spending and donations.
Aduja, 44, is a graduate of Golden Gate University and was admitted to the state bar in 1987.
Other local politicians who were practicing attorneys and ran into trouble with the state legal guidelines include former City Council Chairman Jon Yoshimura, who was suspended from practicing law for six months for lying about a 1999 traffic accident.
In 2001, then-Councilman Andy Mirikitani was sentenced to four years in prison for a kickback and extortion scheme, and subsequently was suspended from practicing law temporarily.