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Judicial Candidate Faces Possible Discipline For Professional Misconduct

A San Diego lawyer running for Superior Court judge faces disciplinary action after a judge found that he threatened to report someone to the Internal Revenue Service to get settlement talks going in a civil case.

Aired 3/28/14 on KPBS News.

Douglas J. Crawford, who is running against incumbent Judge Ronald Prager, faces a 90-day suspension for threatening to report an opponent in a civil suit to the Internal Revenue Service.

The State Bar Court of California has found that Douglas J. Crawford threatened to report the opposing side in a civil dispute to the IRS to trigger an audit.

In September 2010, attorney Douglas J. Crawford sent an email to lawyers for Kearny Mesa Towing and Crusader Insurance. Crawford had filed lawsuits on behalf of a client against the companies and several individuals.

Crawford told the lawyers it was apparent one of their clients had under-reported income to the IRS for several years. He gave the attorneys a deadline to start "mature, reasonable settlement negotiations" or Crawford’s client would report the matter to the IRS.

“The legal system is undermined by making threats,” wrote Judge Richard Honn of the State Bar Court of California. He found Crawford culpable of one count of misconduct.

“Incivility and scorched-earth tactics jam the judicial system, are costly to parties in both time and treasure and tarnish the image of all lawyers, not just those who engage in them,” Honn wrote.

Crawford is appealing the decision.

Former state bar prosecutor Arthur Margolis said threatening criminal, administrative or disciplinary action to influence a civil lawsuit violates professional conduct rules for lawyers.

"The action is so close if not the same as extortion,” said Margolis of Los Angeles. “You’re threatening to report someone to an agency that could have criminal implications for a person. You’re making a threat to leverage that person to resolve a civil dispute.”

Crawford denies the threat came directly from him.

“As to the facts, the correspondence is quite clear, I did not threaten to report anyone to the IRS, my client did,” said Crawford in a written response to questions from KPBS. “The specific wording of the correspondence states that I restrained my client from filing it.”

Honn wrote in his decision he was concerned about Crawford’s “lack of remorse and insight into his behavior in litigation because it may be an indication of likely recidivism.”

The state bar court has recommended that Crawford receive a one-year stayed suspension with an actual suspension from practicing law for 90 days.

“If you’re suspended for 90 days or more, you have to tell all your clients that you’re suspended,” Margolis said. “You have to close down your practice. You have to tell them they can pick up their files. You have to return any unearned fees.”

Crawford is running in June against incumbent Judge Ronald Prager. Margolis said the proposed disciplinary action raises questions about whether Crawford is suited for the bench.

"Is this someone who has the temperament and judgment that I would want in a judge?” said Margolis, who does not know either judicial candidate.

Crawford’s case has asked the state bar court’s appellate division to review Honn’s decision. The California Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether to accept the state bar court's recommendation.

Asked whether he was worried about the possible outcome, Crawford wrote, “I’m a big boy and I can accept any decision or punishment.”

Crawford was originally charged with three counts of professional misconduct. Two were dismissed.

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