Dr. Buzzard

Mediator Gary Karpin preyed on vulnerable divorcées, falsely claiming he's a lawyer and a Ph.D.

That's just what Niedzwiecki, Murray and other embittered consumers have alleged in complaints to the State Bar of Arizona.

Last April, the Bar filed a pending lawsuit against Karpin under a new rule that allows civil sanctions against those who engage in the unauthorized practice of law. Among other things, the Bar wants a county judge to order Karpin to repay more than $100,000 in fees, and to impose other sanctions.

Karpin has responded in court papers by saying he "provides an invaluable service to the legal community and to individual clients, as [he] has successfully mediated literally thousands of divorces through supreme skill, expertise and knowledge, whereby even . . . difficult and contested cases have been successfully mediated.

Ruth Murray and Gina Niedzwiecki (rear center) with their 10 offspring at a Phoenix park.
Jon Jeffery
Ruth Murray and Gina Niedzwiecki (rear center) with their 10 offspring at a Phoenix park.
The state Bar's dogged Fran Johansen is retiring at the end of this week.
Peter Scanlon
The state Bar's dogged Fran Johansen is retiring at the end of this week.

"These decrees have been submitted to Commissioner Eve Parks on a continuous basis for years, for quick approval and resolution of matters usually involving children."

Not so quickly in the case of Gina and Joe Niedzwiecki. That one took about 15 months from start to finish.

Gina says she now knows she was far more vulnerable than she'd realized to Karpin's patter, which can be charming and seductive.

Bright and articulate, she had a fine job as a bank administrator until multiple sclerosis forced her into a medical retirement about five years ago.

Then Gina made the decision to file for divorce from her husband Joe after two decades of marriage. That would have been stressful enough without her illness, and without the responsibilities of two young daughters.

Gina doesn't have family in Arizona, and that surely contributed to her sense of isolation.

That's where Gary Karpin stepped in.

He would exact a devastating price from Gina, both financially and emotionally, over a year-plus period that ended last summer.

During that time, she paid Karpin $87,767 to complete the paperwork in what seems to have been a relatively simple and amicable divorce.

In other words, Gina Niedzwiecki paid Karpin an average of $1,350 a week for more than a year for services that the divorcing couple may have completed themselves, or hired an attorney for a few thousand bucks.

"What that guy charged that lady is outrageous, incredible," says Norman Davis, presiding Superior Court judge of the county's Family Court. "Two experienced attorneys in an average case with the facts described here don't approach what he charged. Lawyers charge that much 1 percent of the time, if that. It just isn't right. I'd like to hear his explanation for all this."

Karpin's explanation is like the man himself -- blustery and glib.

"I'm sure none of this is going to get into your story, [but] I put in two years of work to get a decree to make her a wealthy woman," he says, claiming that Gina's "investment" of $87,000 turned into a "$300,000 return" in her divorce settlement.

"You're not going to take this amazing decree and tell me that she got ripped off," Karpin continues. "It's a decree she never would have gotten in any other scenario. . . . I'm actually very proud of the work I did in this case."

As for Gina, Karpin says, "She's not a victim, she's more like a seductress. She's very pretty and used her attractiveness, and manipulated me. . . . She's the farthest thing in the world to being a victim."

Gina collected the money from myriad sources: She borrowed from her 401(k) retirement fund and from friends, maxed out credit cards, and turned over the proceeds from the sale of a house.

After she came to her senses last summer, Gina taped phone calls with Karpin during which he demanded yet another $9,000 from her.

Those calls, copies of which Gina submitted with her written complaint to the Bar last October, show how Karpin tried to woo her romantically in one breath, and angrily vowed to sue her for the money in the next.

Fran Johansen plans to retire from the State Bar of Arizona next week. That should bring a smile to the faces of Gary Karpin and others who have been in her sights since she went to work more than five years ago as the Bar's first unauthorized-practice-of-law attorney.

Johansen had a thriving family law practice of her own until turning to public service in 1999. She's a good listener -- and, man, she's heard some stories. She's also compassionate and well-organized, a good combination in her job.

Johansen says she still feels passionately about the need "to try to stop scam artists from acting as attorneys and doing things they have no right to do, sometimes for large sums of money."

Many crypto-attorneys gravitate toward Family Court, an arena of aggrieved spouses, high-priced attorneys, and a court docket manned by overloaded judges.

Johansen chuckles at accusations by Karpin and others that she's had a personal vendetta against non-lawyers.

"I know that's what Gary and some others think," Johansen says, "but they're barking up the wrong tree. I understand mediation pretty well, and I think that's fine for the right couples. But mediators can't advocate for either side. By definition, they are supposed to be independent overseers of an agreement between divorcing couples. That's where Gary has gotten into trouble with us, that and some other things."

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