Fast-talking Andy Yslas, one of the few Spanish-speaking lawyers in Prince George's County, found most of his cases on the police blotter or in the corridors of the courthouse.He took the shoplifters, petty thieves, the fender-benders -- the cases of street people he knew would plead quilty to anything to stay out of jail or settle to get off the hook.
Fellow lawyers called him the "plea king" because he'd always try to make a deal rather than take a case to trial.
When his clients couldn't pay him in cash, they paid him in kind. He took their furniture, their cars, anything of value. His practice was so large he ran day and night shifts at his law ofice near the Hyattsville courthouse.
This fall, Andy Yslas got in trouble himself. Clients complained he had taken their money and forgotten their cases. A lawyers' disciplinary board investigated, and Yslas agreed to be disbarred without going through a formal trial ordered by Maryland's highest court.
"They let the plea king plead himself," one lawyer remarked.
In the eight days between his consent to disbarrment and the formal revocation of his license to practice law, Yslas went on a collection binge, signing up new cases and settling old ones, pressuring as many clients as he could for immediate payment.
Then he disappeared, and the local bar association is still trying to straighten out the mess he left behind.
Yslas' clients were among the least sophisticated and therefore the ones who needed the most effective legal representation," one attorney said. "The irony is that most got the least effective representation and, as a result, got more problems foisted upon them."
Other lawyers said most attorneys and judges were reluctant, until the end, to file complaints about Yslas' conduct, but they eventually realized his actions were doing more harm to the profession than would his exposure.
Bar association officials say Yslas left behind at least two dozen unresolved cases, and others that were closed may have to be reopened. In some cases, his clients say they paid him but he never represented them. In others, the clients are demanding new trials, claiming Yslas failed to represent their interests properly.
About a dozen attorneys who practice in Prince George's have volunteered to sort through Yslas' cases and try to resolve the problems. If they find that clients have already paid for services they didn't receive, the attorneys have agreed to donate their time to ensure the clients receive fair treatment.
"He was one of our own," said one of the lawyers who is working on the backlog, "but we have to see that these people get effective representation.
One conviction already as been overturned. On Friday, public defender Fred Warren Bennett told a Circuit Court judge one of his clients convicted of possession of cocaine deserved a new trial because Yslas mishandled the defense.
The prosecutor tried to defend the former defense lawyer to save the conviction. "I'll admitt that Mr. Yslas is not as eloquent as F. Lee Bailey," he said, "but nowhere in the Constitution is it written that any defendant is entitled to have an F. Lee Bailey."
Judge Audrey Melbourne granted the request for a new trial.
Another judge told of watching Yslas argue a client's case so ineffectively that the judge summoned both the lawyer and his client to the bench and offered suggestions to the client, ignoring Ysalas.
"I had to cover for Yslas," the judge said later. "I was playing two roles: presiding judge and defense attorney."
In the 14 years since Yslas resigned under fire from the county prosecutor's office after being accused of a conflict of interest, he built a reputation among his colleagues for plea bargaining almost all of his cases and among his clients for keeing people out of jail.
"He would jump on us in the courtroom," recalled a police officer who testified against Yslas' clients. "He would say, 'Listen, tell the state's attorney to reduce the charges.' After half a day of sitting in court, you would do it for him."
But many clients liked him and trusted him. Steve Platt, an attorney following up some of Yslas' old cases, said some of the ex-lawyer's clients still cannot comprehend what happened to them or how their cases could have been left hanging after Yslas assured them everything was resolved.
James Kenkel, a College Park attorney appointed by the bar association to identify Yslas' cases and set up a panel of lawyers to examine them, said: "Andy served his clients in a little different manner than the rest of us, but . . . they liked him and felt comfortable with him."
In many cases, Kenkel said, the plea bargain Yslas arranged was probably the fairest treatment his client could expect.
But a list of charges filed with Maryland's Court of Appeals accused Yslas of failing to properly serve many of his clients and misusing his office escrow account that lawyers use to accept funds due their clients when cases are settled.
Yslas, the lawyers' disciplinary board said used money from the account to make child support payments and pay office expenses. The board also said Yslas had entered a plea of no contest to criminal charges stemming from a violent sexual attack on his estranged wife.
On Oct. 11, Yslas signed a consent agreement saying if the charges were brought against him, "he could not successfully defend himself."
He accepted disbarment as the penalty for his acts and became one of only a handful of lawyers -- fewer than a dozen in Maryland this year -- to lose the right to practice law.
But the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court and overseer of the state bar, did not formally revoke Yslas' license until eight days later. And in those eight days, Yslas practiced all the law that he could. Lawyers tell of telephone calls from him attempting to settle cases out of court. Clients say he took their money without telling them that he would soon cease to be a lawyer.
"On October 11, he called and said he needed more money," said Francis Ayton, whose son was in jail on armed robbery charges. Ayton had already paid Yslas more than $2,000.
"He was persistent. He called up only when he wanted money. He said everything was set. He had to have the money to get [my son] off the hook. . . . He told me he was retiring as soon as this was over."
Ayton gave Yslas another $1,500.
He did not know the lawyer had consented to be disbarred that same day.
Eight days later, on Oct. 19, Yslas pleaded Ayton's son guilty to some of the charges against him in exchange for the dropping of other charges. On the same day, he stopped being a lawyer and soon after that dropped from sight.
A new lawyer is now examining the case to decide whether the disbarment process tainted the defendant's guilty plea.
Another lawyer, Kevin McCarthy, said Yslas called him to settle a personal injury case the same week.
"I refused to deal with him, period," McCarthy said. "Anyone in the process of being disbarred . . . loses all sense of values. He is bound by no rules, because soon he will be out of the game. If I give him a check, there is no way to assess . . whether the client will ever see it."
In another case, Dawn Marie Redford of Oxon Hill said she paid Yslas $3,000 and a brand new television set to represent her husband on larceny charges.
The man went to jail, and Redford is trying to get him a new trial. But she says she spent so much on Yslas that she can't afford to pay her husband's bond.
"I still get calls," said Kenkel, the lawyer who heads the case review. They say, 'Yslas is driving my car, he's got all my furniture, he's taken my money and I'm still in jail.'"
Meanwhile, sheriff's deputies have a warrant for Yslas' arrest in a tax case but have been unable to serve it. They believe he is in hiding.