A businessman with a history of misrepresenting his legal credentials went on trial in Alexandria yesterday on charges that he took money from unwitting clients who thought he was a lawyer.
Simon Banks, 65, has been charged with 15 felony counts of larceny by false pretense and one misdemeanor count of unlawful act of practicing law, said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Elliott Casey.
During the first day of trial in Alexandria Circuit Court, Casey told the jury that Banks "preys on people who trust him."
"He lies [by] telling people he is a lawyer, licensed to practice law," Casey said in his opening statement. "He takes his clients' money, and for most of them that is the last they will see of Simon Banks."
Banks was serving a two-year sentence in the District for contempt of court but was released accidentally and is being held without bond in Alexandria, Casey said. After the Alexandria case is completed, he will be returned to the District to finish his term there, Casey said.
Over the past two decades, Banks has been sanctioned repeatedly for misrepresentation of his legal credentials. Although he has a law degree from Howard University and has served as a hearing examiner, he is not licensed to practice law, Casey said. In the past, Banks also has been accused of marketing himself as an administrative law judge, though prosecutors maintain he has never been one.
Uley Norris, one of Banks's attorneys, argued that Banks never passed himself off as a lawyer.
"He told people he was a doctor of law," she said. "He is authorized to represent people in administrative hearings in front of administrative law judges."
Banks's attorneys argued that a federal law passed in 1978 changed the title of hearing examiner to that of administrative law judge, so, they contended, Banks was not misleading anyone. However, past court rulings have prohibited Banks from using that title.
But Casey, who estimated that Banks charged his clients a total of about $70,000 in legal fees, countered that Banks misled people into believing he was a lawyer from the name of his business, the Judge Banks Group in Alexandria.
In advertisements over the years, Banks urged people who felt they were victims of employment discrimination to call the Judge Banks Group and be represented by a former judge, according to court records.
Walter W. Lancaster III, one of 22 prosecution witnesses who will be called during the trial, said he went to Banks this year to get legal representation after he felt he had suffered discrimination at his federal government job.
"He told me he was a former administrative judge," Lancaster, 38, testified. "He told me he was a lawyer and that he won 150 straight cases. I was under the impression that he was a lawyer."
Lancaster said he paid Banks a total of $1,150. "I would have given him no money if I had known he was not a lawyer," he said.
However, Sarah Hennesy, Banks's other co-counsel, showed Lancaster documents that he signed. In fine print, those documents stated that Banks was not licensed to practice law before the courts.
"His representation was limited before administrative agencies," Hennesy said.
But Lancaster said he believed that Banks was an attorney because he told him that his case was good enough to "go all the way," implying that it could end up in court.
If convicted, Banks faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the felony counts, Casey said. The trial will resume today.