By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 10:06 PM
An Arlington County lawyer who defrauded parents of children with special needs was sentenced Friday to a year in prison by an Arlington Circuit Court judge.
Howard D. Deiner, 54, specialized in representing parents who challenged local school boards' handling of their children. Four parents testified at Deiner's trial in October that Deiner had told them he was a lawyer and that he could appeal their cases to the courts if they lost at the schools' administrative level.
But Deiner had allowed his D.C. bar license to lapse from January 2006 to April 2009, although he had been warned by the District and Virginia bars and the Arlington police, and he was not legally able to file court actions. Still, he did file a federal appeal on behalf of one family and forged another lawyer's signature on the pleading, that lawyer testified.
And although he was not required to be a lawyer at the schools' administrative level, many parents said he simply didn't do a very good job for them - or any job, in some cases - and wouldn't return phone calls, e-mails or case files.
Deiner was arrested in November 2009 on charges of felony fraud and misdemeanor practicing law without a license. He was never licensed in Virginia. An Arlington grand jury in July added three more fraud counts, and "we could have brought multiple more complaints and cases of people who are similarly situated," Arlington Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney R. Frances O'Brien said Friday.
In addition to being unlicensed, O'Brien noted that Deiner did not properly handle his clients' funds with an escrow account, instead depositing the retainers and "taking it right out." Lawyers typically place clients payments in an escrow account to keep them separate from their other business accounts. Deiner testified at trial that he wasn't familiar with the escrow process.
At his trial in October, Deiner also said he was not familiar with the process of being admitted to practice in federal court. He has not been prosecuted for apparently filing a forged signature on the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
That signature was "the icing on the cake" for Chief Arlington Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr., who said it convinced him Deiner's conduct was more than just negligence. He convicted Deiner of the one misdemeanor and four fraud counts after a day-long bench trial.
"He started to believe the lie he created," O'Brien told the judge Friday, "and he convinced these people to part with tens of thousands of dollars. . . . The emotional needs of the families involved, and the stress put on them, were tremendous. They looked to him to be a champion, and he lied to them, and he lied to you."
Deiner's attorney, James Clark, said Deiner "clearly didn't set out to hurt anybody. He set out to help these folks."
Clark also said Deiner had brought a certified check for $36,000 to repay the fees he received from the four families who were victims in the case, and he handed the check to O'Brien.
Deiner stood and expressed his regrets. "I want to apologize to the court and apologize to the victims," Deiner said. "Every day, I wake up feeling awful. I'm trying to understand what I did. I understand the impact it's had. I feel awful. I truly apologize to everyone."
Newman sentenced Deiner to four years on each of the fraud counts and one year on the misdemeanor, all to run concurrently, and he suspended three years of each fraud sentence. He allowed Deiner to remain free on bond. He is scheduled to surrender Jan. 31.
Sharon Hannon-Cheich and her husband Ron, who paid Deiner more than $15,000 after he assured them he could take their case to court, said they thought the sentence was fair.
"It's really unfortunate," Hannon-Cheich said, "that Deiner chose to prey on so many families already struggling to secure appropriate educational services for their learning-disabled children. We don't think that Deiner ever thought he would be prosecuted or held accountable for his deceit. We were pleased that Judge Newman held him accountable."