Transparency and Accountability at the Oregon State Bar
When Megan M. Perry’s name was stricken from the roll of attorneys on April 5th, 2018, by order of the Chief Justice of Oregon’s Supreme Court, the story of her professional flameout was remarkable for several reasons: the briefness of her legal career (under four years); the number of bar complaints she racked up during that short period (22); the frequency at which the complaints were arriving (two per month at the end); and the brazenness of her alleged misconduct (“dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” in nine of the complaints). There are also — allegedly¹ — forgeries.
Two months before her official disbarment, Perry ended the multiple investigations against her by submitting her Form B Resignation. On it, as one is required to do, she memorialized the names of the sixteen² complainants and the bar rules she was alleged to have broken in each of their cases. This is the only way an Oregon attorney can resign during a disciplinary investigation.
However, even Perry’s lengthy Form B does not tell the entire story of her purported misdeeds, nor does it represent in any way the total number of clients with claims against her.
As it stands now, the true scope of Perry’s misconduct may only ever be fully uncovered by those determined that it must be uncovered. Strangely, those goals do not seem to be shared by the Oregon State Bar.
According to OECI (Oregon’s online court access system), prior to October 2, 2017 — the date on which she went inactive — Perry had appeared in 339 civil and criminal cases in eleven counties. While the vast majority of those were family matters, Perry also had a fair number of protective proceedings and guardianship cases.
When news of Perry’s disbarment made the rounds — via the one article written about her not authored by me — additional clients came out of the woodwork, glazed and in shock, desperate to share their stories. Perry’s disbarment had created a condition for them that had not previously existed and that they were eager to take advantage of: instant credibility.
Smart victimizers and criminals choose their targets carefully. Few would push someone around, or forge their signature or steal their money if they didn’t think they’d get away with it for some reason. Usually, that reason is that they knew that nobody would listen to their victim.
Some of Perry’s clients didn’t have a complete knowledge of the legal system; others were vulnerable people trying to redeem themselves after earlier bad choices; still others lacked a strong support network or the resources necessary to ensure that their rights were not trampled upon. Whatever “weaknesses” these people displayed, they were zeroed in and capitalized upon.
It was through one of these previously unknown complainants that I first learned of the Oregon State Bar’s Modest Means Program, designed to help lower and moderate-income people “find affordable legal assistance.” To a person of lesser means, “affordable” is synonymous with “good.”
Ultimately, this gentleman was fearful of Perry’s wrath if she discovered he was speaking with someone about her conduct. He took the handful of links that I sent him — mostly related to filing malpractice claims or information on how and where to report a crime³ – and went on his way.
I could not go on my way. The idea that Perry had been referred clients through a worthwhile program, even while complaints were pouring in, was sickening.
This new knowledge also helped to reconcile a puzzling retainer agreement in another of Perry’s complaint files, which are public records. In that matter, Perry was charging a client $60 per hour for services which included telling the client that she was divorced when the matter had actually been dismissed for inaction two years prior.⁴
In early July, after working for months to shed light on some allegedly criminal aspects of Perry’s brief career, I circled back to the Modest Means issue. The policies regarding attorney eligibility for the program state that an attorney must be an “active member of the OSB,” “in good standing,” and “have no Disciplinary Proceedings⁵ pending.”
I was shocked to learn that, under those policies, had she not voluntarily (or involuntarily) gone to inactive status in October 2017, Perry would have still been eligible to have clients referred to her via Modest Means, even while under sixteen separate, active disciplinary investigations, right up until the day that formal charges were filed against her.
This disturbing fact begs for a review of the program’s policies, and hopefully the passage of some sort of Megan’s Law, in which an attorney becomes ineligible to participate in Modest Means once they have hit a certain number of complaints. 5? 10? Those limits could have stopped her cold in April 2016 or May 2017, respectively.
In an effort to find out the extent of her involvement with the Modest Means Program, I submitted a records request to the OSB on July 7th. I included her husband and partner, Erik JD Moeller⁶, in the request because so many of Perry’s filed bar complaints mention his conduct, as well.⁷
I was prepared for the records coordinator to tell me that these Modest Means referrals — two of which I already knew of— were not subject to public records requests. If someone at the bar wanted to hide something, that would have been a smart response. It certainly would have kept me busy for several months trying to disprove or work around it.
Instead, to my consternation, the coordinator responded that “both of these attorneys did not participate in this program.”
Even had I not already known that this was false, the coordinator’s strange and awkward phrasing was an immediate red flag, as though information was being dictated to and conveyed through someone with a poor understanding of the subject.
The coordinator continued, “… therefore there are no records to provide you with.” So the coordinator just admitted that, had Perry and Moeller participated in the program, the bar would provide me with those records. That’s gonna be tough to walk back.
After swiftly recovering from my brief upset that I had been lied to by an employee of the bar, clearly at the behest of someone higher-up, I checked in on the remainder of Perry’s clients with whom I maintained contact, to see if any of them were Modest Means referrals. I found two more out of this pool of 30 or so people.
That’s roughly one tenth of my particular pool. Making no assumptions about whether or not Perry allegedly took advantage of poorer clients at a rate higher or lower than those clients paying her more; or whether or not poorer clients filed bar complaints at a rate higher or lower than wealthier clients, one could postulate that approximately 35 of her total 339 cases were referred to her by the bar via their Modest Means Program.⁸
What I do know, from many conversations with my pool of people — even those with financial means — is that nearly all of them repeatedly ignored their gut instinct to run away from Perry, almost exclusively because they did not want to throw good money after bad. They stuck with her because they were “all in” and didn’t have the time or strength or will to start the process over again with a new attorney. And the poor people were “all in” financially, as well. Literally.
Even more disturbingly, in many of those cases, starting over was exactly what they would have to do, since Perry allegedly destroyed or gave away their position in the case… often, seemingly deliberately.
The OSB had not seen anything quite like the Perry mess since early 2012, when an avalanche of complainants (seven in one week!) came forward about Bryan Gruetter, a Bend attorney who was embezzling clients’ funds.
Like Perry, Gruetter would also hastily end the investigation in a matter of months by resigning via Form B. His matter drained the OSB’s Client Security Fund in a way that was “unprecedented.” Gruetter went on to to do jail time for his crimes, admitting that he was “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Because of the financial aspects of Gruetter’s case, there was more real-time disclosure and exposure, including an article in the OSB’s October 2012 Bulletin written by the then-president. The stock photo used to illustrate the article – a cartoon stack of cash in danger of falling through a cartoon hole being sawn into the floor — highlights without irony what most people already feel about attorneys, rightly or wrongly: they only care about money. “Cash is in danger?! Oh the humanity!1!!”
In most regards, Perry’s case has a similar trajectory to Gruetter’s. Both attorneys were putting on an “everything’s great” facade, luring in more clients right up until the end. Both were active in the leadership of the bar at the state or county levels. Perry was the current president of the Linn-Benton Bar Association at the time she went inactive, and the transition was not officially resolved for nearly two months.
Where Perry’s matter diverges from Gruetter’s is that it involves family cases instead of personal injury cases. The havoc Perry allegedly caused in divorce and custody cases is not as easily identified as in Gruetter’s; the crimes for which she could be prosecuted are not as sexy as embezzling, and not as easily understood or proven.
Likely because of this, her case has not received even one-tenth the attention from the bar — or any local law enforcement or the Department of Justice or the press. That lack of disinfecting daylight… well, it makes the stereotype regarding lawyers and money ring true. “She’s enabling a child abuser and manipulating court staff? [long yawning pause] So, are any stacks of cash in danger?”
That makes one think that the lack of attention is not a bug, but a feature. Perhaps the bar learned the lesson, from their relative openness in the aftermath of the Gruetter matter, that transparency empties their coffers and personal pockets. After all, in the wake of that mess, Oregon attorneys had to pay an additional $30 annually to rebuild the reserves of the Client Security Fund. Did I mention that’s $30 each?!
That the sole article about Gruetter written for Bulletin publication was not about ethics refresher courses or reminding attorneys of their duty to report misconduct, but instead about how much this is gonna cost… it leads one to believe that secrecy might be the motivation behind the bar’s failure to announce Perry’s Form B in the monthly Bulletin, despite three issues having been published since her resignation: May, June, and July.
Although, I remain open to a more plausible reason.
The reason I care so much about Megan Perry’s 339 cases is because my family’s is one of them: a custody matter in which she represented our opponent. We were one of those that Perry was forced to name on her Form B. We even made it “above the fold.” In our case, Perry conducted herself in a manner “prejudicial to the administration of justice,” including witness-tampering and improper communication with unrepresented parties. I do not need to use the word alleged here. It is fact.
Yet, we are still trying to unknot the stranglehold she held over our former attorney, the Polk County Trial Court Administrator, and even the judge.
Because Perry was our opponent, we do not have the same means available to us to correct our case and make us whole again that her clients do. Perry gets to claim attorney-client privilege if we try to examine whatever secret exhibits she waved around in chambers. We cannot sue her for malpractice. Our valid concerns about our rights, due process, and justice are poo-pooed as though we were merely litigants unhappy with our ruling, as if the entire three-year ordeal that preceded the ruling had not been irrevocably tainted by Perry’s presence. Believe it or not, we’ve even had pushback from people who claim that a Form B is no indication that misconduct occurred.
As to how skilled a manipulator she is, Perry managed to get a judge to ignore Oregon’s Rules of Civil Procedure. That judge is now deservedly “retired.”
So we’re forced to continue plugging away at our case, manually undoing the damage Perry caused, arguing that everything is void due to the extrinsic nature of her fraud, and the visible-from-space prejudice that it caused. Everything we do is towards the goal of settling our custody matter justly, and according to law.
One means of achieving that objective seemed to be to expose the larger pattern of Perry’s alleged misconduct.
Since early spring 2017, I’ve been using the public records search to skim the dockets of all of Perry’s cases, looking for the telltale signs of impropriety that might only be visible to the neutral eye of a third party. I’ve made spreadsheets with column titles that sound “tinfoily” until you remember that Perry actually did do things like tell people they were divorced when they really weren’t, or tell them they had custody of their kids when they really didn’t.
I’ve ordered the complete files of cases that looked “interesting” in the same way our case looked “interesting,” which is to say, nightmarish. There are a lot of them. My office, previously devoted to gentler hobbies such as drawing and sewing, now has a corner solely for the cardboard file boxes, manilla envelopes, and stacks of CDs.
I was picking away at this for six or so months, in my “spare time,” when Perry suddenly went inactive. Within the month, Perry and Moeller allegedly loaded a U-Haul with office items and drove it to Montana.
This information was alarming. It seemed likely that, if the U-Haul tip was true, Perry was maneuvering to hide paper records — the only kind she kept, according to a source.
More disturbingly, at that time, due to her inactive status, she should not have even been able to access those papers. They should have been under the sole control of her husband/partner, to whom she had officially turned them over.
The bar knows what to do when an avalanche of complaints alleging serious misconduct comes rolling in, and they did it in Gruetter’s case. In case they had forgotten how to do it, my partner quickly reminded them.
This letter, a plea for the bar to “exercise its statutory authority… to secure Ms. Perry’s law practice,” cited all the reasons why it would be prudent to do so, and stated clearly that it was “for the sake of the public interest.”
Neither Helen Hierschbiel, Executive Director of the Oregon State Bar, nor anyone else at the OSB, responded.
It is worth turning to the bar’s own Mission Statement at this point, to try to ascertain exactly what they stand for.
It is a plainly-worded statement, no legalese, full of clear declarations and virtually no wiggle-room: “We are a regulatory agency providing protection to the public,” and “the bar is accountable for its decisions and actions and will be transparent and open in communication with its various constituencies.” It also espouses integrity, fairness, leadership, and justice, as well as “the highest ethical and professional standards.”
I am unable to reconcile the bar’s mission statement with the bar’s actual actions in their handling of the matter of Megan M. Perry.
Nowhere does the mission statement advocate lying to a victim regarding a public records request; nowhere does it state that a victim’s pleas to protect the public’s interest should be outright ignored; and nowhere does it encourage a bar investigator to deride a victim as “over-zealous,” merely for advocating for their rights, even vigorously.
Where is the protection? The regulation? Transparency? Most importantly, where is the integrity? Where are all these things that the Oregon State Bar supposedly values? Why are they missing in this particular matter? The unanswered questions are piling up like Perry’s bar complaints.
Regarding Modest Means: it seems as though evidence of Perry’s participation in the program is being willfully suppressed. If so, under Oregon law, it is presumed that the evidence of would be adverse to them.
¹ I’m going to be sprinkling the word “allegedly” in a lot here. Bear with me.
² While Megan Perry had 22 bar complaints in her career, six of them had already been dismissed before the avalanche started in 2017. Those earlier complaints feature all of the hallmarks for which Perry would eventually become known. Some were not very coherent, which may be why the bar ignored or dismissed them so quickly. What is very clear, is that all of them were authentic cries for help.
³ Reporting a slow-motion crime is definitely not as easy, quick, or intuitive as you think.
⁴ More about this particularly fascinating case in the longer series of articles that is forthcoming.
⁵ As defined by the OSB’s Rules of Procedure, “a proceeding in which the bar is charging an attorney with misconduct in a formal complaint.”
⁶ Moeller is a public defender with a state contract, i.e.your Oregon tax dollars at work.
⁷ In fact, in reading those that mentioned Moeller, it should have been clear to the bar that the complainant expected that the conduct of both attorneys be scrutinized.
⁸ I have no basis to form an opinion as to whether that’s a high or low number for an attorney participating in this program.