Politics and Government

Republican AG candidate faces suspended law license

Former Rep. Dennis Smith presents his Real ID bill during a House committee hearing in 2017. Smith, now a Republican candidate for attorney general, faces discipline from the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

A Republican candidate for Minnesota attorney general faces a law license suspension of 30 days and additional scrutiny over his dealings with a client.

Dennis Smith has agreed to the recommended license suspension, a payment of $900, and probation for two years. The discipline stems from a complaint by a legal client, who says Smith mishandled fees and billing and failed to reasonably communicate about matters connected to a probate case.

The disciplinary arrangement was signed by Smith last week. It still awaits final signoff by the state Supreme Court.

Smith is a former Republican legislator from Maple Grove and is one of three announced GOP challengers to Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison.

Under the terms of the agreement, if Smith regains his law license he’ll have to be supervised by another attorney during his probation.

When asked about the matter, Smith, in a written statement to MPR News, indicated he is moving forward with his campaign. He declined to be interviewed until the findings are official. 

The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility investigated the claim for months before coming to the disciplinary agreement with Smith.

In the statement, Smith acknowledged that he had been through a “thorough and rigorous audit of financial records, legal correspondence and other records” in his law practice. He said while he believed everything to be in proper order, he decided earlier this month to enter into the agreement.

“I have apologized and made amends with the client. I have learned from this and while it is regrettable that this situation has unfolded, I am at peace with my decision to accept the responsibility for my miscommunication with my client,” Smith said. “In no way does this change my commitment to becoming your next Attorney General. In fact, it has only strengthened my resolve. Leaders must take ownership of their mistakes and not only shine in the victories.”

Thousands of pages of records connected to the case file show that a Vermont woman who hired Smith to do estate work and later a probate case for a deceased relative filed a complaint after feeling misled about his fees and the way he handled a $71,000 payment connected to the estate. The probate case played out over several months in 2019 and 2020.

The client filed the formal ethics complaint in April 2020 when she became worried that Smith had mishandled the funds. She eventually terminated Smith as her lawyer; Smith returned $1,857 of the woman’s $2,500 retainer after she pressed him for an accounting, according to documents.

“My experience with Dennis has been extremely frustrating,” she wrote in signed testimony, adding that she had to front money for tax charges on the estate “due to Dennis’ lack of diligence.”

The woman said Smith called her after the complaint was lodged to offer an explanation and that moved the disbursement of funds forward. She told the board after that call that “Attorney Smith may not have acted unethically, but he has not acted responsibly.”

A friend of the woman, who made the initial legal referral to Smith, grew concerned when Smith launched his bid for attorney general in June. She wrote to the case investigator.

“I just heard that Dennis Smith is running for the office of MN Attorney General,” she wrote. “I find this very concerning based on the false statements documented in his case.”

She was assured the case was still active and that potential discipline would determine whether Smith faced any restrictions. 

Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility Director Susan Humiston said the Supreme Court reserves the authority to do an additional review and make different recommendations in cases. There is no firm timetable for court action.

“In every case, they do a thorough review,” she said.

Smith, a two-term former House member who lost a re-election bid in 2018, said when he entered the race he wanted to take the politics out of the attorney general’s office. 

Two other Republican candidates, Doug Wardlow and Lynne Torgerson, are competing to run against Ellison, who announced this week he will seek another four-year term in 2022.