The Return of Pacific Law Center

12 Oct

If you have heard of San Diego’s infamous Pacific Law Center, you may have heard the name Larry Majors associated with it. After all, it was Majors who brought Philips and Associates to Phoenix, and eventually Pacific Law Center to San Diego in 2003. For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a brief history.

Way back in 1990, Larry Austin Majors, Sr. was arrested on 16 felony counts for collecting sales taxes illegally charged to Indians while he was the manager of a Payson, Arizona car dealership. Majors, was pocketing the money and, despite the best efforts of his attorney, Duane Varbel, was ultimately sentenced to a year in prison and 7 years probation in 1991 for his actions.

As if the arrest itself was not dramatic enough, Majors was taken into custody while attending a baseball game in which his son, Austin Majors, was playing.

Not having learned much about making an honest living during his stint in the penitentiary, Larry joined his brother, Wayne, in the fraternity of convicted felons who graduate to running law firms. Wayne Majors, who had served time in federal prison in the late 1980s for mail fraud, was running the Dallas/Ft. Worth law firm Paternostro and Associates, when his brother Larry arrived. Wayne, as the executive director and office manager, hired Larry and made him an employee.

In April of 1992, Larry left Dallas for San Antonio where he partnered with Attorney Marvin Davis in the law firm Davis and Associates. Majors was the money and the brains behind the operation. He designed and implemented the advertising campaign, and within several months, Davis and Associates had made a huge dent in the bankruptcy market in San Antonio. For his part, Majors paid himself a salary of $8000 per month.

Even in Texas, Majors seemingly made too big a splash, too fast. Less than a year after opening Davis and Associates, Majors left abruptly in October after a bankruptcy judge in San Antonio put an end to the operation, finding on the record that Majors had started the firm, funded it, and controlled its operations. He also forbade Larry Majors from ever engaging in the unauthorized practice of law again. In other words, Larry Majors was never to have anything to do with the operation of a law firm ever again.

Majors, however, was not about to ride off quietly into the sunset. In fact, in May of 1992, a month after he opened Davis and Associates, Majors partnered with his former criminal attorney, Duane Varbel, in the Phoenix bankruptcy firm, Varbel and Associates.

Shortly thereafter, Larry Majors made his first splash in the San Diego market when he opened Gordon and Associates in San Diego. True to form, the firm quickly became the highest volume bankruptcy law firm in the county, but was gone roughly a year later. Gordon was eventually disbarred for his role in the opertation.

Not one to mess with a streak, Majors went on to fund Phillips and Associates in Phoenix with his future son-in-law, Jeffrey Phillips. Philips and Associates, of course, eventually opened shop in San Diego under the name Pacific Law Center.

Larry’s son, Austin Majors, was the Director of Marketing at PLC. Larry Majors, who was once described as a cross between Wayne Newton and John Gotti, would appear occasionally at Pacific Law Center functions and was a regular at the strip club, Pure Platinum, where he would throw extravagant “all expenses paid” firm happy hours for the sales team after a good month.

Keeping up the family tradition of operating law firms illegally, Austin continued in his role at PLC even after the firm was sold to Kerry Steigerwalt in 2008. Steigerwalt and Larry Majors had a strategy meeting at a San Diego hotel around the time the deal went through.  Apparently Larry wanted to keep a family connection, so Austin stayed on until early 2009.

Fast forward to the present day. Steigerwalt announced several months ago that Pacific Law Center would be closing its doors and may well be on his way to joining Varbel, Gordon, and Davis in facing suspension or disbarment after having gotten involved with Larry Majors.

The thing about temptation, though, is there always someone willing to succumb to it. Two former PLC bankruptcy attorneys, Don Bokovoy and David Weil, recently opened Golden State Law Group (http://www.goldenstatelawgroup.com/).  A former colleague of Bokovoy and Weil confirmed that, you guessed it, Larry Majors is indeed the financial backer behind Golden State Law Group, and Austin Majors, once again, is handling the marketing for the firm.

A recent post on the Facebook Page for Golden State Law Group showed a comment from a follower which read “Glad to see you are back in the game guys . . . “ Right below that is a reply from Austin Majors, which reads “Thanks!”

The cast of characters makes anything in a John Grisham novel appear pedestrian. Bokovoy was heavily involved in the long defunct law firm of Gordon and Associates. The disgraced attorney Gordon eked out a living for years doing side work for PLC’s bankruptcy department. Bokovoy was recently in the news after he was tracked down at bankruptcy court by a disgruntled client and confronted on camera about questionable business practices.

If history has anything to say about it, we will probably start to see ads for Golden State Law Group all over television, billboards, and bus stops throughout San Diego County, and they will likely grab a substantial share of the bankruptcy market in fairly short order. Unfortunately, history also teaches us that consumers in San Diego should tread with great caution if they are considering hiring Golden State Law Group to handle their bankruptcy case.

Wife of Sam Suleiman, Rosa Barraza, to be arraigned today on multiple felony charges

22 Jul

Rosa Barraza, the wife of Assad “Sam” Suleiman, who gained national notoriety in 2007 for assaulting a local San Diego reporter, is scheduled to be arraigned at 1:30 p.m. today on felony charges of burglary, two counts of grand theft, and elder abuse.

In 2006, the husband and wife duo were being investigated by reporter John Mattes of Fox 6 San Diego, the local San Diego Fox Affiliate. On September 6, 2006, Mattes, along with his cameraman, went to the home of Suleiman and Barraza to confront the couple about multiple allegations of mortgage fraud.

When Mattes arrived on the scene and attempted to question Suleiman about his actions, Barraza angrily confronted him, threw water at him and the camera, and asked Mattes if he wanted to end up buried in Mexico. Suddenly, Suleiman intervened, and viciously attacked Mattes, throwing him to the ground, jumping on top of him, and beating him. Cameraman Dennis Waldrop caught the entire incident on tape, and Mattes wound up with broken ribs, and bites and cuts to his face.

Ultimately, Barraza pled guilty to misdemeanor assault and received probation, while Suleiman, who was facing far more serious charges, pled guilty to assault with a deadly weapon causing grievous bodily injury, and was sentenced to a year in county jail and felony probation on July 7, 2007.

Unfortunately for Suleiman, he was still on felony probation when he was arrested on June 30, 2010 on the same charges that his wife is scheduled to be arraigned on today. Because he is on probation, Suleiman has what is called a “probation hold”, rendering him ineligible to be released on bail while his case is pending. He has been in custody at the George Bailey Detention Center since his arrest.

Interestingly, both Barraza and Suleiman were represented in the 2007 assault case by Attorney Kerry Steigerwalt, who announced on June 30, 2010 (the same day Suleiman was arrested) that his firm, Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacifc Law Center, would be closing its doors for good. Not two weeks later, on July13th, Steigerwalt substituted in as counsel of record for Suleiman. Barraza also worked for Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacific Law Center in the Loan Modification Department as a loan processor from 2008 through 2009.

If convicted, Barraza faces up to 19 years in state prison, while her husband faces up 25 years behind bars because of the felony case he is currently on probation for.

The Rise and Fall of Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacific Law Center

16 Jul

The recent news that Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacific Law Center will closing its doors for good has shot through the San Diego legal community with the ferocity and speed of a lightning bolt. The opinions, like the reactions, are both plentiful and all across the spectrum. Most express surprise or shock that a firm once so bold, brazen, and if nothing else, immensely lucrative, could fall so far, so fast, and so hard.

Amongst those with a closer knowledge of the way the firm was run, and the institutional practices it implemented, there is far less surprise. In fact, if there is any surprise at all, it is at the length of time that the firm was able to keep its proverbial bow above the squalls under the weight of a massive advertising budget, mismanagement at all levels of the operation, and a literal flood of State Bar complaints. It was never a question of if, but rather when it would finally happen. Now that it has, perhaps the only thing more abundant than the opinions, are the questions about how and why it did.

Pacific Law Center opened for business in San Diego in March of 2003, and at a mercurial pace, unabashedly rose to the top of the San Diego legal scene. This was no accident. Pacific Law Center is an offshoot of the powerhouse Phoenix law firm, Phillips and Associates, which specializes in bankruptcy, criminal defense, and personal injury. San Diego and its unusually small, tight-knit legal community for a city of its size, was the perfect target market in which to re-apply a proven, successful formula.

The formula itself is really quite simple: run a law firm as you would a car dealership to maximize profits. The application goes something like this. First, inundate the airwaves with flashy, expensive, constantly recurring advertisement on both television and radio. Second, hire a team of sales people and experienced managers that know how to manage a sales force and close deals, and label the sales people “intake clerks” (or “IC’s” as they are known within the firm’s walls). Third, train the army of IC’s to quote exorbitantly high fees and promise clients the moon (fourth DUI with an accident, serious bodily injury, and a .28 BAC? No problem! Our attorneys will get your case dismissed). Fourth, assemble a staff of attorneys, who couldn’t possibly adequately represent the volume of clients that have been assigned to them, and pay them as little as possible. Fifth, laugh all the way to the bank as the money comes pouring in. Sarcasm aside, this is essentially the formula that Phillips and Associates, and then Pacific Law Center very successfully followed to make millions and millions of dollars.

Invariably though, such tactics lead to dissatisfied, unhappy clients that become angry, demand refunds, and often file complaints with the State Bar, the County Bar, the Better Business Bureau, or, frankly, whoever will listen. When these types of practices began to catch up with Pacific Law Center, Kerry Steigerwalt was brought aboard in February of 2008 with the idea that he would manage the firm much better than it had been before, and he would run a much tighter ship, so to speak.

In reality, the opposite happened. I spoke to an attorney that used to work for the firm, who felt that Steigerwalt only made matters worse. According to him, “morale was so low, it is a wonder anyone is left”. Another former employee, Thomas Slattery, who had been with the Pacific Law Center since early 2004 and had been the supervising attorney of the firm, was fired in May of this year. Slattery has since filed suit against Steigerwalt and the firm alleging wrongful termination and numerous other causes of action. In his complaint, Slattery alleges that he repeatedly made Steigerwalt aware of a multitude of violations of the rules of professional responsibility that govern all attorneys in California, but that Steigerwalt, as a matter of course, ignored all of his warnings. Eventually, Slattery blew the whistle and was fired for doing so.

The ultimate demise of Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacific Law Center may, however, have more sinister elements than mere mismanagement and unscrupulous business practices that at last brought a tide of negative publicity that no amount of advertising money could overcome. One former non-attorney employee, who wished to remain anonymous, was certain that Steigerwalt has been keeping two sets of books. He claimed that he knew there were two computer systems at the firm. One was the main computer system that was managed by the firm’s I.T. manager, and another that nobody at the firm could access – not even the I.T. manager. Rather, the second system could only be accessed by Steigerwalt’s accountant, Ellen Bolden, and an outside I.T. technician.

Then there is the part about the “no refund policy” that Steigerwalt has allegedly implemented in recent weeks. According to one former employee, both the supervising paralegal, Maria Vargas, and the firm’s C.F.O., Bill Simon, informed every employee that no more refunds would be given to any clients. If true, such a policy would be a direct violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct §3-700(d)(2), which require an accounting and the return of any unearned fee – regardless of the terms of the retainer agreement.

In the end, only time will tell how underhanded the powers that be acted under the watch of Kerry Steigerwalt, and how they factored into the collapse of a once mighty stalwart of the San Diego legal community.

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