(AP) - The law license of former Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger is in jeopardy over allegations he misused money from a client's lawsuit settlement, an infraction that he admitted took place while he was still a legislator.
The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility board filed a petition Tuesday asking the state Supreme Court to suspend or disbar Hottinger from practicing law for taking $8,820 from a trust account set up when a personal injury lawsuit was settled. He has since repaid the money.
"It was certainly inappropriate to do what I did, there's no question about that," Hottinger said from Washington during a phone interview.
Hottinger said he admitted to the infraction and took corrective action when contacted by the lawyers' board.
“No one was harmed by anything. In fact, no one knew about anything until I disclosed it to the state bar."John Hottinger
The board began looking into a possible misuse of funds in April when the bank that held the trust notified them of an overdraft in the account, a standard alert required of Minnesota financial institutions that hold legal trusts.
"No one was harmed by anything," Hottinger said. "In fact, no one knew about anything until I disclosed it to the state bar."
Hottinger, a St. Peter Democrat who didn't seek a sixth term in 2006, has been working as a lobbyist. He filed forms last week to end his relationships with three of four clients and said his future status with the Ready 4 K advocacy group hasn't been determined yet.
During his 16 years in office, Hottinger served one session - in 2003 - as the Senate's leader, but was replaced in that post later that year.
Hottinger said he effectively borrowed money from the trust account to help him pay his mortgage. He said he was financially strapped as a legislator making $31,000 a year. He said he planned to get the money from his retirement account once his career in the Legislature ended.
The $22,000 settlement reached in Jan. 10, 2006, for a client identified only by her initials was meant to pay her legal and medical bills and other costs. Hottinger personally received $4,910 for representing the woman.
Beginning Jan. 12, Hottinger wrote six checks from the trust fund ranging from $500 to $3,000. On April 12, the account became overdrawn when a check was made out to a clinic. Hottinger replenished the account in June.
Hottinger said he hopes his punishment is balanced with the other work he's done. He said he put substantial personal money and time into representing death row inmates in Texas and frequently gave lectures to law students on the ethical challenges of simultaneously being a lawyer and legislator.
Martin Cole, director of the lawyers board, said either a suspension or disbarment would be warranted. He said the board can make a recommendation to the court in concert with the accused attorney.
He called the Hottinger case serious.
"Any knowing or intentional misappropriation of client funds is a serious matter that will result in this office seeking public discipline of the attorney," Cole said. "The amount in question is not going to determine whether it is serious at all."
Hottinger has been a licensed attorney in Minnesota since 1972, but he said Tuesday that he no longer actively practices law.
Hottinger said he doesn't believe he has broken any criminal laws. Cole said his office leaves criminal matters up to county and federal prosecutors but it doesn't refer cases for possible prosecution.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)