Ian Mulgrew: Top lawyer accused of mishandling millions

Column: The Law Society of BC has accused one of the province’s most senior and respected lawyers, Michael Bolton, of mishandling $20 million in trust accounts.

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The Law Society of BC has accused one of the province’s most senior and respected lawyers, Michael Bolton, of permitting his trust account to be used in a manner that he ought to have known would assist in or encourage dishonesty, crime or fraud.

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The funds alleged to be involved total more than $20 million over the last decade.

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Bolton denies the charges but now faces a disciplinary panel hearing.

“It is our view that the Law Society alleges against Mr. Bolton are entirely unfounded,” said his lawyer, retired justice Peter Leask. “The citation was authorized in late November and we are still waiting for disclosure.”

The hearing is the first stage of a disciplinary process for lawyers that could lead to a variety of sanctions, including disbarment from the profession.

“Your appearance before the hearing panel may be your only opportunity to present evidence, call witnesses or make submissions,” stated the five-page citation issued on Dec. 7 by Tara McPhail, the legal regulator’s director of discipline.

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Bolton temporarily pulled the curtain down on the proceedings by seeking an order for non-publication of the citation or, alternatively, publication with anonymization.

The citation was initially posted by the Law Society with the names redacted.

After a Feb. 9 hearing and considering written submissions last month, adjudicator Lindsay LeBlanc lifted the veil.

She concluded the public interest in transparency trumped Bolton’s request for secrecy.

The alleged misuse of Bolton’s trust account relates to three sums — $4,866,976.72 Cdn, $10,159,297.95 Cdn, and $6,508,949.78 US.

Bolton has been a member of the Law Society for more than half a century. He was called to the bar on Oct. 1, 1969.

He is considered one of the most experienced and one of the top criminal lawyers in Canada, renowned for his effective cross-examining skills.

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His career spans decades, multiple borders and thousands of proceedings — many involving significant, high-profile cases at all judicial levels, including the Supreme Court of Canada.

He became a recognizable face on the nightly news in 2010 during the infamous BC Rail bribery scandal in the BC Supreme Court, in which he was counsel to Dave Basi, one of those accused.

Bolton has worked with American counsel to successfully resolve cases in New York, California, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Montana, Washington, DC, and Washington State.

Still, like all lawyers, he was the subject of a periodic Law Society compliance audit, which took place in July 2019.

on Feb. 7, 2020, the professional watchdog opened an investigation and on Nov. 30, a discipline committee authorized the citation that remained opaque until Bolton’s request for anonymity was resolved.

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The society alleged that between October 2011 and November 2018, on behalf of one or more clients and related parties — identified only by the letters K, F, V, E, and Z — Bolton “engaged in activities that assisted in or encouraged dishonesty, crime or fraud” by allegedly permitting his trust account to receive and disburse $4,866,976.72 Cdn and $6,508,949.78 US when he ought to have known various “particulars”. The Law Society says those particulars were that some of his clients were being investigated in the United States, and some or all of the funds were the proceeds of certain business operations by some of the clients that US authorities had determined amounted to money laundering under US law.

The citation also claims he knew or should have known freezing orders were in the offending and Z, K, F, and V had entered guilty pleas in the US for money laundering and conspiracy to distribute wholesale quantities of misbranded prescription drugs for the foreign market.

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Regardless, the Law Society maintained Bolton had failed to be on guard against becoming the tool or dupe of an unscrupulous client or other person.

Bolton is also alleged to have used or permitted the use of his firm’s trust accounts to receive or disperse, or both, some or all of another $10,159,297.95 Cdn.

Between approximately September 2016 and January 2020, on behalf of one or more clients or related parties — identified only as W, P, and O — Bolton again was accused of engaging in activities that assisted or encouraged dishonesty, crime or fraud by allegedly permitting his trust account to receive or distribute funds in circumstances where he ought to have known of certain circumstances.

The citations assert he knew or ought to have known one or more of the clients or related parties was a “significant transnational criminal organization”, according to the US Office of Foreign Asset Control; the US had obtained a warrant to seize funds held in specific US bank accounts; one or more of the clients or related parties were subject to civil forfeiture proceedings, including an interim preservation order in BC; and W and others involved with O were indicted for US mail and wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

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Bolton argued extraordinary circumstances existed warranting anonymization.

He maintained there was no evidence for two of the most important allegations, and publications would cause catastrophic consequences to his career.

The Law Society said the circumstances were not extraordinary and did not outweigh the public interest in the publication of the citation or the strong presumption in favor of openness and transparency in its disciplinary process.

Adjudicator LeBlanc noted: “The Law Society says that it is a critical consideration that (Bolton) has provided little, if any, evidence of the risks or harms asserted (to warrant proceeding in secret) and that in the absence of such evidence, there is nothing that takes the present circumstances beyond the ‘public scrutiny, embarrassment and intrusion on privacy that is necessarily a part of’ these disciplinary proceedings.”

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Bolton did not file affidavit material in support of his application, but LeBlanc added: “I have been provided with lengthy submissions arguing that the citation lacks merit. In brief summary, (Bolton) submitted that substantial legal services were rendered, although the specific personal retainers remained unspent.”

None of the allegations have been proven, no determinations on the merits of the citation have been made, and accusations by the Law Society are not always made out or upheld by the courts.

“We are confident that Michael did nothing wrong,” Leask maintained. “Given that the matter is before the tribunal and we are awaiting disclosure from the Law Society, we are unable to comment in more detail at this time.”

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A discipline panel will conduct the hearing at a yet-to-be-determined date.

[email protected]

twitter.com/ianmulgrew


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