Veteran Monett attorney formally disbarred

Saturday, June 22, 2019

John Woodard surrenders law license over misconduct charges

Longtime Monett attorney John Woodard has been formally disbarred by the Missouri Supreme Court, voluntarily surrendering his license in the wake of allegations that he mishandled the funds of a client.

Woodard, 88, closed his office at 1001 E. Broadway at the end of April in what he called a planned retirement. He denied any wrongdoing but conceded he no longer had the records to support his position.

The Missouri Supreme Court handed down a ruling on June 4 approving Woodard’s disbarment.

According to documents filed with the Missouri Supreme Court, Woodard signed a petition to the court on Jan. 25, agreeing to voluntarily surrender his license and to cease practicing law in Missouri. At that time, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel [OCDC] had an investigation pending regarding allegations of misconduct against Woodard.

In his petition, Woodard stated he “does not wish to contest the charges which might be brought against him.”

The investigation found Woodard guilty of violating specific rules of conduct for attorneys, namely failing to hold property of his client separate from his own property, failing to maintain complete records of his client’s trust account for at least six years after the disbursement or the termination of representation, and misappropriating funds owned by a client “by dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

According to the surrender report, signed by Alan Pratzel, appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court as chief counsel over the state’s attorney disciplinary system, the complaint against Woodard came from one of his clients, Tony Sullivan. Sullivan came to Woodard in 2005 for legal assistance in dealing with a divorce. In the divorce settlement in 2008, Sullivan and his then wife sold their house, and $51,934.49 from the sale were deposited into a trust account. A year later, the money in the account had dropped to $6,010.92.

According to the report, Sullivan maintained an attorney/client relationship with Woodard into 2017. Woodard said the association stopped in May 2013. Sullivan filed a complaint against Woodard in May 2017. Woodard made a sworn statement on Nov. 14, 2017, admitting receiving the funds.

“[Woodard] failed to account for the $51,934.49 and has converted a great portion of it to his own use and benefit by making transitions to other accounts in his name,” the report stated.

Pratzel declared, “In his Application to Surrender, [Woodard] admits that the OCDC has evidence to support the allegations.”

Woodard practiced law in Houston, Texas, for nine years before securing a Missouri license in December 1985. He became a partner in Monett with Henry Clapper and Jim Randall Sr., after the death of their senior partner, E.L. Monroe. He practiced independently for nearly 25 years.

After handling Sullivan’s divorce case, Woodard said he handled five other cases for his client, some of which were resolved and settlements paid from Sullivan’s escrow account.

“He never paid a dime in legal fees,” Woodard said. “We had a written agreement that the rest [of the money in the escrow account] could be used for attorney fees. I’d tell my secretary to transfer three hours [of billing] from the escrow to the operating account. It was all in the escrow records at the bank. He knew he wasn’t paying any attorney’s fees.”

When Sullivan filed his complaint in 2017, Woodard said he attempted to contact Sullivan, but his calls were not returned.

“Through my insurance under the Bar Plan, I offered to give him the $50,000,” Woodard said. “We were informed by a St. Louis attorney that he now wanted $2 million. The statute of limitations had run out. My attorney told me, ‘We don’t owe him anything.’ Ultimately he got nothing.”

The review of misconduct by the OCDC’s Region 15 Disciplinary Committee nonetheless went forward. Woodard discovered he had problems because, under state guidelines, he had destroyed records that were five years old. He had no documentation left showing why the funds were transferred from the escrow account.

“When we talked to Sam Phillips with the grievance committee, my attorney said, ‘John’s 88 and he’s retiring. He’s been doing this for 51 years. Why don’t we just surrender the license and call it quits?’

“Phillips said OK. Then the disciplinary hearing would be dropped. He didn’t tell us that by surrendering the license, it was an automatic administrative disbarment. We were sandbagged. I suggested we file an answer to the charges. My attorney said if we did, they wouldn’t accept the voluntary surrender of the license. Phillips said, ‘You don’t have the records. That’s all I’m interested in.’ Under the Supreme Court guidelines, if you don’t have the records, you’re guilty.”

Woodard said he planned to retire before he submitted the application for surrender of his license on Jan. 11. He spent much of his time over the subsequent months finding other attorneys to take his clients’ cases.

“I still have my license in Texas,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t want to practice law anymore.”

Woodard held the position of city attorney, at different times, for Monett, Aurora and Purdy, and was a distinguished defense attorney, handling many high profile cases like the Joseph and Shannon Agofsky murder trial in 1997. Following the death of Emory Melton, Woodard became the senior practicing attorney in Barry County.

“Monett has been good to me,” he continued. “It’s different from practicing in Houston. They had more lawyers in Houston than all of Missouri, and nobody liked anybody.

“Practicing here has been very enjoyable. All the judges have been so nice. The lawyers have been super. There’s always a bad apple in the bunch, but generally its been very pleasant. For this to happen, I can’t believe it. It’s God’s will. It will work out.”

Woodard said he and his wife Sarah, who has family in Mt. Vernon, plan to stay in the area.

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