Dr. Buzzard

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

One theme of the complaints against Karpin, Johansen says, "is that when a young woman comes in, [whom he] becomes interested in, he becomes their advocate. But he still charges them whatever he thinks he can get from them."

Johansen used to forward some complaints against Karpin and others to the state Attorney General's Office for possible criminal prosecution.

But she admits to having been very frustrated by the form letters sent to her in response by a legal assistant in the state agency's Consumer Protection and Advocacy unit.

Ruth Murray (left) and Gina Niedzwiecki, who filed 
seperate complaints against Karpin with the state Bar.
Jon Jeffery
Ruth Murray (left) and Gina Niedzwiecki, who filed seperate complaints against Karpin with the state Bar.
Murray (center) and Niedzwiecki met for the first time in person a few weeks ago.
Jon Jeffery
Murray (center) and Niedzwiecki met for the first time in person a few weeks ago.

Those letters claimed that investigations couldn't proceed "because both staff and resources are limited."

The dismal situation didn't change when Terry Goddard became attorney general in January 2003, even after winning election in part on a platform of fighting white-collar crime.

"I had to tell people there was very little I could do for them," Johansen says. "I'm talking about folks who genuinely had been hurt, at least financially, and never had anything like this happen to them."

But things brightened some in July 2003, when a new Arizona Supreme Court rule went into effect.

Until then, Arizona had been the only state lacking civil or criminal sanctions against the unauthorized practice of law. The new rule created a board that licenses and regulates document preparers, of whom there are dozens in this state.

Gary Karpin, for one, wouldn't qualify for such a license because of his previous disbarment. But there's nothing to prohibit him from running a mediation business -- hearing people out and making suggestions about a course of action, but without giving legal advice.

The new rule also allows the State Bar to seek civil penalties against those who collect fees for doing the work of lawyers, especially giving legal advice.

Evidence is overwhelming that Karpin has done exactly that -- given legal advice, taken sides in a dispute, and sometimes charged far more than attorneys.

Still, no local agency other than the State Bar -- whose powers are limited with non-lawyers -- has yet to try to stop him.

"These guys are very good at what they do," Fran Johansen says, speaking of Karpin and others. "And there are victims out there [from these mediators] just the same as if they'd been held up at gunpoint."

Karpin replies, "The Bar has a hard-on for me. They don't like me, don't like what I'm doing, because I'm pushing them and I'm pushing them hard. And they don't seem to be able to do anything about me."

Gary Karpin moved to Arizona, land of the fee and home of the brazen, in the mid-1990s.

He migrated here a few years after losing his ticket to practice law in Vermont, shortly after his 40th birthday.

It's no wonder Karpin sought a fresh start far from home.

Records at the Vermont Supreme Court show that Karpin was admitted to the Bar in October 1987, after earning a law degree from Vermont Law School.

He worked in that state as a prosecutor for almost a year before going into private practice by himself. But the Vermont Bar soon got several complaints about Karpin's work, both as a prosecutor and as a sole practitioner.

As a prosecutor, for example, he'd filed a petition alleging that a couple had been providing inadequate care for their child. After Karpin left the agency, he agreed to represent the couple in the same matter. That's unethical, though standing alone wouldn't have cost him his legal career.

But Karpin also had other complaints pending against him. Probably the worst one involved his inept handling of, and deception about, a case involving an illiterate client who was suing over a bad car deal.

Vermont Supreme Court records show that Karpin bribed his former secretary to take the blame for his own legal failures. Eventually, the secretary came clean, which didn't help Karpin's status with the state's disciplinary board.

That panel wrote of him: "[Karpin's] conduct in this matter demonstrates an appalling lack of concern for this client and the client's matter. When the matter began to go badly, his only concern was for self-preservation. . . . The Panel believes this to have been dishonest and self-serving."

In asking the state Supreme Court to disbar Karpin, the panel concluded that "the depth and breadth of [Karpin's] conduct is so significant and wide-ranging that he is a threat to the public, the profession, the courts and his clients."

The high court unanimously agreed in 1992 to disbar him.

Karpin's illiterate client later sued him for professional malpractice, and won an $88,000 verdict, including $75,000 in punitive damages.

In Arizona, Karpin reinvented himself in the mid-'90s as a mediator available for couples seeking to avoid headaches of high-dollar attorneys and an overburdened court system.

He took a weeklong class in mediation at Maricopa County Superior Court, collected a certificate, and hung up a shingle.

That's all it took, plus a steady advertising budget and a sophisticated rap to hook needy clientele in the lucrative turf battle with the Bar over the divorce dollar.

Unquestionably, a market for divorce mediators existed in Arizona, then and now. Study after study talks about unmet legal needs of the poor and even middle-class, mostly because too many attorneys simply cost too much.

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