The Iowa Supreme Court suspended Robert Wright Jr.’s law license today for one year after he borrowed money from clients on the promise of a $1.8 million payout for helping another client obtain an apparently phony inheritance from a relative in Nigeria.
Wright’s license was suspended in August 2012 after he refused to cooperate in an audit of his legal trust account. The suspension handed down today will begin when the previous temporary suspension is lifted.
According to the ruling, Wright fell victim to a scam that has been perpetrated on lawyers across the country, one in which clients tell their lawyers that they are expecting a large inheritance from an African nation.
In Wright’s case, client Floyd Lee Madison claimed in 2011 that he was due to receive an $18.8 million inheritance after the death of a relative in Nigeria. The catch was that Madison needed $177,660 to pay inheritance taxes in Nigeria. He promised Wright a $1.8 million fee for his help in securing the inheritance.
To pay the tax and obtain an “anti-terrorist clearance certificate,” Wright borrowed a total of $50,000 from two other clients he was representing, promising to pay one $50,000 and the other $100,000, after the inheritance funds were received. One of the clients gave up all of the money from a worker’s compensation settlement.
He also borrowed $197,000 from three former clients, failing to tell them that they should have independent counsel before loaning the money, none of which has been recovered.
The ruse took on an additional international twist, with Wright and Madison making contact with someone claiming to be a lawyer in London who said he had confirmed the veracity of the will and other people claiming to be representatives of a Nigerian bank.
Finally, Madison traveled to Spain, where the funds supposedly were shipped in two trunks and where a “diplomat” wanted payment for “logistic services.” Madison reported that he saw the trunks, but he didn’t return with the money.
The Supreme Court disciplinary board noted that throughout the episode, Wright believed in the legitimacy of the inheritance.
“Wright appears to have honestly believed - and continues to believe - that one day a trunk full of . . . one hundred dollar bills is going to appear upon his office doorstep,” according to today’s ruling.
The Supreme Court noted that Wright failed to verify the identities of any of the purported bankers, lawyers and government officials who discussed the inheritance with him.
“A cursory internet search using the query ‘anti-terrorism certificate’ in early 2011 would have revealed evidence that Madison’s dream of a Nigerian inheritance was probably based on a scam,” the Court said.
In handing down the suspension, the court also took note of Wright’s prior record of three private admonitions and two public reprimands as an additional aggravating factor affecting our decision. The court also took into account that Wright “has a long history of pro bono service to indigent clients and dedication to public service.”
The court issued its ruling after Wright appealed a determination by the court’s grievance commission that he had committed several ethical violations in the Madison case.