ELLSWORTH, Maine — A Dedham man running for district attorney of Hancock and Washington counties was issued a warning earlier this month by state officials but escaped disciplinary action for violating rules of the Maine Bar Association.
According to a public report received Oct. 8 by the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, Steven A. Juskewitch was accused last year of taking possession of “certain property items” from a woman who had hired him to represent her on two protection from abuse orders in Ellsworth District Court.
The board held a public disciplinary hearing on the incident, which Juskewitch attended, on Oct. 6 in Bangor, according to the report.
The report indicates that in June 2009 Juskewitch was paid a $300 retainer to start work on the woman’s case, which dealt with “particular items of disputed personal property.” The next month, after a brief court proceeding, Juskewitch and his client traveled to the client’s storage unit to locate her personal property, the report states.
According to the report, Juskewitch prepared a handwritten agreement detailing certain items in the unit that he “immediately took possession of as collateral for [her] unpaid bill.” The report does not indicate where the storage unit was located or what items Juskewitch took.
The woman filed a grievance complaint against Juskewitch on July 20, 2009, alleging that the defense attorney had acted “rudely toward her” and had “illegally seized her personal property in an attempt to force payment” of her bill, the report says.
Juskewitch’s actions violated Maine Bar rules concerning conflict of interest and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, according to the report. Juskewitch failed to advise his client of her right to receive independent legal counsel before agreeing to hand over her possessions, it indicates, and he knew or should have known that she never confirmed her consent to authorize the transaction by signing the agreement handwritten by Juskewitch.
Juskewitch, contacted Wednesday afternoon by phone, said he could not comment on his client’s complaints against him because of attorney-client privilege, which keeps all communications between a person and his or her attorney confidential.
Juskewitch did say that the board’s decision, which does not carry any disciplinary action, was fair. Though he was given a warning, the board dismissed the complaint, he said.
“The decision speaks for itself,” Juskewitch said. “I’m happy there’s a process by which a person can make a complaint. The client’s [now] happy, the overseers are happy, and I’m happy.”
Jeff Toothaker, an Ellsworth lawyer, said Wednesday that he represented the other party in the property dispute that involved Juskewitch’s client. He said Juskewitch had put in a lot of time with the complainant and helped streamline the separation process. Rather than arguing over every item in court, Juskewitch got the separated parties together to physically sort through their disputed belongings, he said.
“I thought he handled it well,” Toothaker said. “The value of the service he provided far and away exceeded what he got in remuneration. He really went above and beyond.”
Scott Davis, bar counsel to the overseers board, said Wednesday that the board’s decision against Juskewitch is public but that it is the board’s policy not to provide further details about its decisions and orders. He said he could not recall what items Juskewitch took in lieu of payment and where the client’s storage unit was located.
Davis said that the warning does not entail any disciplinary action, which means that Juskewitch will face no restrictions on his ability to practice law, either as a defense attorney or as a prosecutor, as a result of the complaint. He said the warning does not have any effect on Juskewitch’s ability to run for district attorney.
According to the commission’s report, the purpose of disciplinary proceedings “is not punishment, but rather the protection of the public from attorneys who, by their conduct, have demonstrated that they are unable to discharge properly their professional duties.”
The report goes on to characterize Juskewitch’s misconduct as “minor” and the harm to his client and to the public as “minimal.”
Juskewitch has taken responsibility for his actions and expressed remorse for the incident, the report said.
“Juskewitch has shown that he generally takes steps to avoid such situations and is unlikely to repeat the behavior in the future,” the report said. “For this reason the [board’s grievance commission] panel finds that a dismissal [of the complaint] with a warning serves the purpose of protection of the public.”
Dozens of decisions and orders issued by the board stretching back to 1999 are posted for public scrutiny at the Board of Overseers of the Bar website, www.mebaroverseers.org, but not the one concerning Juskewitch.
Davis said the reason the decision is not posted is because the board does not post complaints about attorneys that are dismissed outright or that end only in a warning. Any case that ends with a disciplinary action, such as a reprimand or suspension, are posted on the board’s website, he said.
“A dismissal with a warning is not discipline,” Davis said. “It’s been the policy of the board for many years to only post discipline [decisions] on the website.”
This year marks the third time that Juskewitch, a former prosecutor in Cumberland and Hancock counties, has run for district attorney of Hancock and Washington counties. He ran unsuccessfully for the position in 2002 and 2006.
An independent, Juskewitch is running against Democrat Carletta “Dee” Bassano and Republican Matthew Foster for the seat.