By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The U S West Direct Yellow Pages dated March 1997-98 advertises the "low fees--expert service" of attorney Robert L. Devers. "Services limited to bankruptcy. Seventeen years experience. Over 5,000 cases handled," the small ad says.
A few pages later, there's a quarter-page ad for attorney Anthony W. Clark, whose "Arizona practice" is said to be limited to bankruptcy.
Devers and Clark share the same Phoenix business address--7207 North Seventh Street. But they list different phone numbers.
Neither man is licensed to practice law in Arizona.
Until recently, they had been allowed to represent clients in Bankruptcy Court despite a local federal court order that went into effect in 1994. That order requires attorneys who reside in Arizona or maintain their main offices here to be admitted to the state bar before practicing in federal court.
But several lawyers unlicensed in Arizona have skated around that order, which, on occasion, has meant bad news for debtors.
United States trustee Adrianne Kalyna and others say they have complained to bankruptcy judges about the situation--but to little avail.
Clark moved here from Tennessee last June, apparently intending to work with Devers. He was admitted to practice at Bankruptcy Court, even though he didn't have an Arizona law license. Records indicate he then failed the Arizona bar examination.
Then, last December 19, Bob Devers was suspended from practicing law for two years by the state Supreme Court in Kentucky, where he was accredited.
"There is no way to overcome the obvious, egregious and serious nature of the charges," that state's high court wrote unanimously of Devers and his law practice.
In the early 1990s, Devers was the dominant bankruptcy attorney in Kentucky. At one point, according to court testimony, he had more than 30 employees. But a deluge of complaints--many akin to those against Dick Berry and People's Paralegal--led to his demise.
". . . One does not have to be poor or uneducated to be attracted to the siren song of debt relief," a Kentucky judge opined in 1992. "[But] Mr. Devers' bankruptcy practice experienced uncontrolled growth and . . . generated a caseload that could no longer be effectively handled."
Another judge told Devers that year, "You are holding yourself out on the radio and in the newspapers as being an expert in bankruptcy, and you are doing it lousy. I think this is kind of fraud on the public. . . . It seems to be what you've got over there is some sort of money mill or something like that."
But Devers' suspension did not stop him from practicing law at Arizona's Bankruptcy Courts until late February, when the District Court finally ordered him to stop.
During those three months, he took on clients and appeared at Bankruptcy Court without being licensed to practice law anywhere in the United States.
Court records show Devers filed about 50 cases between mid-December 1996 and late February 1997. He charged an average of $600 per bankruptcy case during that time, all Chapter 7s.
Deborah and Ignacio Gano assumed that $950 was a fair price for an attorney when they filed for bankruptcy last November. But in January, the Peoria couple were stunned when Devers and an attorney for a creditor engaged in a shouting match at the courthouse.
In March, the Ganos complained to the state bar that the creditor's attorney had accused Devers of practicing law without a license.
Devers denied the allegations, the couple wrote.
"We wanted an attorney to help since we know little of the law," Ignacio Gano wrote. "I feel that I paid an excessive amount of money for a paralegal . . ."
The bar declined to pursue the matter.
The state bar also was of little help to Angelika and John Rahney, who complained about Devers on December 18.
The Rahneys asked the bar to discipline Devers ". . . since [he] did not render any services to us and was not willing to answer pertinent legal questions [about our bankruptcy] . . . The probability is that this same situation happened to other clients of Mr. Devers."
In a January 9 response, state bar counsel James Lee told the couple he couldn't help them.
"Robert L. Devers is not licensed by the State Bar of Arizona. Therefore, we have no jurisdiction over his conduct. However, you may wish to contact the US [Bankruptcy] Court to file your complaint. . . . That court . . . has authority to oversee non-lawyer doc-prep services."
At the time, Devers still was an attorney, not a document preparer. Beyond that, the counsel's analysis--that the bar had no authority in this case--was misguided.
An Arizona Supreme Court rule states: "A non-member engaged in the practice of law in the state of Arizona . . . submits himself or herself to the disciplinary . . . jurisdiction of this court." The bar polices lawyers on behalf of the Supreme Court.
Last February 26--a few days after Bob Devers finally lost his ticket to practice bankruptcy in Arizona--an attorney with the United States trustee's office notified the bar that she'd called Anthony Clark's office.
The attorney, Michele Hankins, said she asked about bankruptcy services. When Bob Devers got on the line, Hankins said she hung up. Hankins noted that the bar should know about the new arrangement.
On June 5, bar staff counsel Lina Alvarez responded to Hankins, declining to investigate further: