The following post was submitted by Professor Hank Shea. It offers the personal reflections of a former attorney from Virginia, Stephen M. Gunther, who is now serving time at Federal Prison Camp in Butner, North Carolina. Mr. Gunther reached out to Professor Shea in the following email:
Sent: Friday, April 16, 2010 6:57 AM
To: Shea, Henry J.
Dear Mr. Shea:
My name is Stephen Gunther. On March 25, 2010, I pled guilty to one count of wire fraud and am scheduled to be sentenced on June 21, 2010. I was an attorney in the Commonwealth of Virginia for just over 9 years, prior to contacting the bar and surrendering my license March. I have a strong desire to use my situation to help others avoid a similar situation. I believe that my situation may be of interest because there was very little financial gain on my part. I believe that a “people pleasing” personality (not good for lawyers), a desire to increase business, getting caught up in the frenzy of the housing market, ignorance, and failure to properly manage staff led to my situation.
I am trying very hard to handle my situation with honesty and integrity. I am looking at my situation as an opportunity to try to counsel others to identify specific traits that can lead to fraud. Last week, I spoke to about 60 real estate investors for about an hour and a half on real estate fraud. The meeting could have continued for at least another hour with the number of questions they had. I am going to continue to do this as much as I can before and after prison
I would love the opportunity to contribute whether it be before, during, or after I am in prison. I appreciate all you are doing and would like the opportunity to discuss any contribution I could make to your cause.
Stephen M. Gunther
“Although Hank Shea has never met Stephen Gunther, Hank spoke with him shortly after receiving this email and suggested they correspond with each other on how Mr. Gunther might assist others in learning from his failures. On June 21, 2010, Stephen Gunther was sentenced to 20 months imprisonment that he presently is serving at the Federal Prison Camp in Butner, NC. He recently submitted the following journal entry regarding his situation.”
By Stephen M. Gunther
In October of 2000, I received notice I had passed the bar exam in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was one of the best days of my life – a day I will never forget. It was Sunday afternoon and I had just arrived home at my house in Virginia Beach after attending a Virginia Tech football game the previous day. Upon pulling into the driveway, I went straight to the mailbox and saw that the envelope I had been waiting for had finally arrived. I remember how afraid I was to open it. I actually held the envelope up to the light and saw the words “Congratulations…” Excitedly, I tore the letter open and found out that I achieved my goal of becoming a lawyer. I will never forget the feeling I had at that moment.
Since that day in 2000, my life and career have taken a turn that I never saw coming. I am no longer Stephen M. Gunther, Virginia State Bar No. 45428. I am Stephen M. Gunther, Inmate No. 75516-083, at Federal Prison Camp in Butner, NC. Through these postings and Professor Shea’s ethics program, I plan to describe how I got where I am and the lessons I have learned along the way in the hope that my situation can be used as an example to other law and business students to prevent them from encountering a similar fate.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to participate in Hank Shea’s ethics program. I actually found out about the program by mistake. I attended law school at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, FL. I was on the internet trying to pull the website for my law school to contact them about the possibility of speaking to their students about my situation. I had no idea that there was a law school called the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and I inadvertently went to the wrong home page. I realized my mistake rather quickly as it is not too easy to confuse Minneapolis and Miami. I did, however, see the information about the ethics program on the site. It was the type of program for which I was looking. I decided to send Professor Shea an email to see if he had any interest in my participation.
Professor Shea and I exchanged a few emails and then had a telephone conversation. It did not take long to realize that we are both on the same page. We both share a strong desire to promote ethics in the legal profession. I informed him that I was due to be sentenced a few weeks later but would like the opportunity to participate in his program during my imprisonment and after my release from prison. I am actually writing this post as I lie in my upper bunk at the prison camp.
Almost immediately after my situation first came about, I came to the decision that I would use my experience as an opportunity to educate students and young professionals on scenarios that can lead to a fraudulent situation or ethical dilemma. As a result, I spoke to ten large groups throughout Virginia and North Carolina prior to my incarceration. I was also videotaped by a Regent University School of Law professor for his Professional Responsibility students to watch on their first day of class. My wife, who is a Regent Law alumna and an attorney licensed in both Virginia and North Carolina, spoke briefly and answered the students’ questions. The presentation had quite an impact on the students. The following are some of their reflections:
“I cannot speak for everyone in the class, but I found their stories compelling and a real ‘eye-opener’ as far as the ramifications that seemingly ‘simple’ mistakes can make for us lawyers. We are held to a much higher standard of scrutiny and to be made aware of that on the first day is foundational to such a course as Professional Responsibility. Please let the Gunthers know that their story has impacted my view on the legal profession and that they are in our prayers.”
The experiences I have had over the past year are things I never thought possible. The day I first saw the paperwork styled “The United States of America v. Stephen Martin Gunther” really hit me hard. How could my government be against me? That is just one of the hundreds of other things that I hope you never have to experience during your career. To close this posting, I will leave you with the top ten worst experiences I had through this ordeal.
“It was a great presentation because it really hit home the fact that Professional Ethics can dramatically change your life if not followed, and it can happen to those who are not intending to do anything wrong. It certainly made me want to learn everything I could about Professional Responsibility!”
“It was a great way to start off the class, and very helpful in showing the standard we need to set for ourselves in critically evaluating both our actions and our staff’s actions—especially in fast-paced, high-volume transaction situations.”
“I really appreciated the video interview for the first day of class. It really helped to instill in me that “not everything will be intuitive.” Along the same lines, that this probably happens more to people who are not trying to break the law. I appreciate Steve’s honesty and willingness to share his experience with us.”
“I thought the interview, combined with Mrs. Gunther’s speech at the end, was a powerful way to illustrate the importance of always being vigilant in the practice of law to make sure one is not breaching an ethical code. What made it most impactful was how it seemed that just being busy can perhaps make one a little careless–and that slight carelessness can have huge repercussions. It was a little scary, knowing that it could easily be any one of us. The message I took from it was that I must always keep my guard up, and use the ‘smell test’ as Mr. Gunther advised. Thank you for making the interview part of our learning experience.”
10. The day the FBI first showed up in my office – You have no idea that they are coming. Picture going about your ordinary day and the FBI shows up and wants to question you about files that closed 3-4 years ago. That’s how it begins. I never expected to ever have to talk to the FBI during my career. Let’s just say that it is a very stressful experience.
9. The day my attorney told me that I would likely have to serve time – It seemed surreal to me. He told me that because I was a lawyer, the defense of ignorance would be very difficult. He told me that I would held to a higher standard because of my fiduciary responsibility. For that reason, he recommended that I accept the government’s plea agreement.
8. The day my story first appeared in the newspaper – You will never realize how inaccurate the newspaper is until you are the subject. I was never contacted by the reporters to have the opportunity to comment. I had floods of phone calls from clients and friends asking what was happening. This was definitely a bad day.
7. The day I had to appear in court and plead guilty to the crime – As an attorney, this is particularly humiliating.
6. The day I first saw paperwork styled “The United States of America v. Stephen Martin Gunther” – enough said.
5. The day the FBI returned to my office and informed me that they were moving forward with a case against me – January 7, 2010, I will never forget that day.
4. The day I sent a fax to the Virginia State Bar notifying them that I was surrendering my law license because I was pleading guilty to a felony.
3. The day I received notice from the Virginia State Bar that I was no longer a lawyer.
2. The day I had to sit down with my 16-year-old son and tell him that my career was over and that I was likely going to prison.
1. The day I had to report to prison and had to leave my wife and kids.
Now for the next several months, my tailored suits have been traded for an olive green prison uniform. My career which I worked so hard to achieve is now gone. I sleep in a dorm with about 90 drug dealers and keep all my belongings in a locker. Despite all of this I am very optimistic about the future and I am very much looking forward to working with Hank Shea’s ethics program.