A western Lucas County lawyer who this year was suspended indefinitely by the Supreme Court of Ohio from practicing law appeared in Lucas County Common Pleas Court Monday to face a criminal theft charge.
Gerald A. Baker, 59, of Spencer Township was charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing more than $30,000 entrusted to him as an insurance settlement for a client.
Yesterday, he failed to appear for his morning arraignment on the charge, prompting Judge Gene Zmuda to issue a warrant. Mr. Baker, who told the judge he had moved and so had not received notification, appeared yesterday afternoon and was booked into the Lucas County jail before being released on his own recognizance.
Attorney Ronnie Wingate, who is representing Mr. Baker, was unavailable for comment yesterday. Mr. Baker's arraignment was postponed until Monday.
If convicted of grand theft, Mr. Baker faces 1 1/2 years in prison.
Mr. Baker's license suspension came about after the Toledo Bar Association charged him with nine counts of misconduct relating to separate incidents dating back to 2003. One of those charges led to the felony allegations listed in a Nov. 13 indictment.
According to the findings of the Supreme Court, the Toledo- based attorney failed to disburse a $34,380 settlement check that he had negotiated in May, 2006. Despite owing a mortgage company and his client, Mr. Baker never paid the funds. Yet his attorney's escrow account where the money should have been held was overdrawn.
Assistant County Prosecutor Robert Miller said the criminal charge is the result of allegations that Mr. Baker used the money to pay for personal expenses. He added that, according to the incident investigation, Mr. Baker took $1,500 of the money and deposited the rest into his trust account and that "it was all spent down until there was nothing left."
Mr. Baker was admitted into the practice of law in Ohio in 1989, but his license has been under suspension since Jan. 9 for failing to comply with continuing legal education requirements. The Supreme Court issued a suspension May 28 for "a host of ethical infractions, including misappropriation of client funds."
However, as part of the court's finding, he can return to the practice of law after completing certain sanctions.
According to the court's decision, Mr. Baker was disciplined for neglecting "to diligently pursue legal matters entrusted to him by clients; [commingling] client funds with his own; [failing] to appropriately account for client funds in his possession; and [converting] settlement proceeds held in trust for a client to his own use."
In its findings, the Supreme Court noted that attorneys are routinely disbarred for similar misconduct. However, the justices agreed to take into consideration Mr. Baker's treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder partly related to his military service in Vietnam during the early 1970s and partly related to the impact of the deaths of several loved ones.
"The board found [Mr. Baker's] dishonest and selfish motives, pattern of offenses, multiple offenses, lack of cooperation in the disciplinary process, vulnerable victims, and failure to make restitution as aggravating factors," the court's decision said. "Weighing heavily in his favor, however, is evidence that [Mr. Baker] suffers from a qualifying mental disability."
Other incidents that led to Mr. Baker's suspension were his failure to file personal injury lawsuits on behalf of paying clients, who he misled into believing a case had been filed on their behalf and whose statute of limitations then expired.
The court's decision stated that after hearing all the evidence, including letters of support from fellow attorneys and Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Doneghy, the justices concluded that with continued treatment and the safeguards set forth in the sanction that [Mr. Baker] will not be a threat to the public and deserves a chance to return to the practice of law."
Mr. Baker was first indicted by a Lucas County grand jury Aug. 28 on one count of grand theft, but the case was dismissed in September, pending the outcome of the Supreme Court review.
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