Judicial identity theft by attorneys
Your average person goes through their life with the inborn knowledge that one of, if not the most efficient way to get oneself arrested would be to forge a judge’s signature. We imagine that before the ink was even dry, handcuffs would materialize out of nowhere and snap around our wrists, and that we would be dragged directly into jail with no due process.
That understanding and fear are not the only things that prevent us from forging court documents, of course: There is also honesty and decency and ability to tell right from wrong.
But for some attorneys in Oregon — who apparently differ from us average people in some fundamental way — the act of forging a judge’s signature on a court order is not only a viable option, it is good business practice.
Some are even getting away with it.
In 2018, attorney Craig Wymetalek created three fraudulent court orders to placate an increasingly impatient client. His ploy was successful for six months, at which time the client brought the papers to staff at Clackamas courthouse and learned that they were forgeries. Handcuffs did not appear out of thin air and snap around Wymetalek’s wrists.
Instead, court staff contacted Wymetalek’s licensor, the state bar, not the police, and inexplicably asked “if anything can be done” about the forgeries. Wymetalek eventually admitted to his crime, gave some pitiful excuses, and resigned his law license in 2020 to avoid being disbarred.
That should have been the beginning of the criminal prosecution against Wymetalek.
Instead, earlier this year, with the statute of limitations running out on the crimes, the Washington County District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute Wymetalek for his forgeries, stating, incredibly:
[The client] does not believe that criminal prosecution is warranted given the passage of time and the fact that Wymetalek was disbarred. We agree with the [the client] that this case is best characterized as legal malpractice. The penalty of disbarment and the loss of a twenty-two-year legal career is the appropriate sanction for this conduct. This penalty also ensures that others will not suffer from this type of conduct in the future.
Respectfully, no: The former client was defrauded, but he was not the actual victim of the forgeries, the two Clackamas judges were — their identities were stolen. Yet the Washington D.A. didn’t even list those judges as victims, or interview them to ask if they believed that Wymetalek should be prosecuted.
And, respectfully, no: Disbarment is not a sanction for a crime, it’s a consequence of it. The only thing that “disbarment” ensures is that Craig Wymetalek no longer has a license to use to attract additional victims.
A criminal prosecution, on the other hand, wouldn’t just punish Wymetalek for his criminal conduct, it would deter others — especially attorneys — from forging court documents with judge’s signatures.
It would also assure the public that such outrageous conduct is not tolerated.
In late 2017, the bar — who is almost always the first to hear about these types of crimes — began receiving an avalanche of complaints against lawyer Megan Perry. Many of the complaints credibly alleged that Perry was forging various court documents, including judge’s signatures.
Perry hired an expensive ethics attorney to sell her absurd and implausible defenses to the bar. She alluded to difficulties she was facing in her personal life, but did not offer any sympathy-inducing details — not out of character for a monster who had once used her former law-partner’s alleged “personal crisis” and “suicide watch” as an excuse to get out of her own contempt deadline.¹
According to one of the complaints, Perry had created a fraudulent judgment of divorce and claimed that Linn Judge David Delsman had signed it. Perry gave it to the client and then filed a copy with the child support office. The client, believing that she was divorced, married again.
Perry’s defense attorney claimed that Perry did “not recall signing the document,” but if she did sign it, she “did so inadvertently and without intending to forge a judge’s signature.” As laughable as that explanation was — literally the kind of excuse a child would give if caught shoplifting — Perry could not explain the wholly-invented case number on the divorce judgment, which was written in Perry’s own hand.
That may have been a reality check, and Perry finally resigned her law license in March 2018 to avoid the impending disbarment. The bar should have then referred Perry’s many crimes to law enforcement — meaning that it was mandatory, not optional, for the bar to do so. Records clearly show that they did not. And in some instances, they even undermined victims’ attempts to report Perry’s crimes to the authorities.
Perry still has not been prosecuted for the fraudulent divorce judgment, or for almost all of her other forgeries in Linn, Benton, and Polk counties. In the state’s one criminal case against her — for her forgery of a process server and notary public’s signatures — Perry attended four hearings over the course of a year, and not once was made to speak or enter any kind of plea.
Remarkably, Judge Delsman presided over two of those four hearings, set her bail at $0, and even let her travel to Hawaii.
Once again, the public is not reassured.
A third alleged attorney-forger is Joel DeVore — son of the Oregon appellate judge of the same name. The bar was the first to hear about his possible misconduct, from a complaint filed by attorney Bonnie Richardson.
Either due to his impossible-to-overlook last name or simply out of an abundance of caution, the bar set about investigating DeVore’s client’s claims of forgery — including a judgment bearing the signature of Multnomah Judge Patricia McGuire — very slowly.
There is no doubt that the judgment is fraudulent, and there is no doubt that it was sent from DeVore’s email account to the client. Still, attorneys can try to explain the situation, even preposterously (like Perry), or sympathetically (like Wymetalek).
However, DeVore did neither, nor did he respond to the bar’s inquiries, period. He was given opportunity after opportunity to respond to the bar’s questions, possibly even more chances than a typical attorney would receive. DeVore simply did not respond. After a year of silence, DeVore was then finally disbarred, by default.
It did not take long thereafter for the Multnomah County District Attorney to indict DeVore for two counts each of identity theft and simulating legal process — both class C felonies. DeVore pled not guilty at his arraignment, presided over by former Supreme Court Justice Richard Baldwin.
For many reasons, it will be interesting to see how the case against DeVore goes. Until then, District Attorney Mike Schmidt handled this case appropriately and quickly, sending the public and the legal community a crystal-clear message: Nobody is above the law, not even attorneys — and not even one related to one of the state’s top-shelf judges.
That is how you assure and protect the public.
There is no Oregon statute that allows an attorney accused of criminal conduct to be treated differently than the rest of us; nor is there any loophole that allows the bar to decide when one of their court-crimin’ licensees has been punished enough.
Yet time after time, we see court staff and law enforcement acting as though attorneys are a distinct class of people not subject to regular laws; that literally anything/everything involving an attorney is a “bar matter;” and that law licenses (even when expired!) are licenses to do whatever the hell an attorney wants, including forging a judge’s signature.
This improper coddling of lawyers and abandonment of their victims absolutely eats away at public confidence. It makes Oregon and especially its judicial system a pitifully unfunny punchline. And until this pervasive delusion — that attorneys are untouchable — is acknowledged and remediated, Oregon will remain as such.
In the meantime, lawyers apparently can feel free to continue forging court orders and judge’s signatures in Washington, Linn, Benton, Clackamas, and Polk Counties — and probably others. But not Multnomah.
The rest of us average people are advised to continue not forging court documents; and to continue being guided by our innate honesty and ability to tell right from wrong.
¹ See Case no. 13P2615, hearing of September 12, 2016; at 3:04:45.