A suburban lawyer accused of engaging in a sexual relationship with a female client and accepting almost $200,000 in loans and investments from her should be suspended, according to a panel of the state's lawyer disciplinary agency.
The Review Board of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (IARDC) issued a report late last month, upholding the recommendation of the ARDC Hearing Board to suspend the law license of Arlington Heights attorney Robert Bless for a period of three years.
The Illinois Supreme Court, which put Bless on interim suspension in June, has the final saying in disciplining attorneys. Bless or the ARDC administrator could file exceptions to the Review Board's Oct. 30 report, asking the high court to weigh in on the matter.
The case against Bless stems from a relationship the lawyer-- a former McHenry County Board member and former Cook County Sheriff’s deputy-- apparently began in 2003 with a woman identified as Kathleen Scott, who ARDC documents say hired Bless and another lawyer to represent her in a wrongful death suit following her husband's death.
In 2006, their relationship became sexual – a fact Bless went to lengths to conceal, according to the complaint the ARDC filed against Bless in 2010.
For example, commission documents state, on a trip to Reno for depositions in the case, Bless allegedly booked two hotel rooms, one for him and the other for Scott, to conceal their relationship from other attorneys.
On another occasion, when asked by Scott how to explain their relationship to another attorney working the case, the ARDC alleges Bless sent a text message to Scott instructing her to lie and say they were “good friends nothing more I could lose my license (sic).”
And when questioned about the relationship in 2009 by the disciplinary commission, Bless allegedly denied repeatedly the nature of his relationship with Scott.
The ARDC also accused Bless of violating attorney rules by accepting multiple personal loans from Scott in the years following 2006, including $48,000 for a BMW and $130,000 to be invested in a building project in Palatine in which Bless and his father were involved.
“At the time of these transactions Scott was an unemployed widow with young children and the respondent (Bless) was having financial difficulties,” the ARDC report says. “In all of these transactions the record is very clear that the respondent failed to have Scott seek independent legal advice, caused Scott to divert her assets for his benefit without taking proper steps to protect Scott's interest, failed to properly disclose to Scott the risks in making the loans and investments, and failed to disclose his overall financial circumstances.”
The Hearing Board disagreed with some of the ARDC’s conclusions in its complaint against Bless, finding, for instance, that it “failed to prove that the sexual relationship prejudiced the administration of justice” and failed to prove Bless violated any rules by transferring the Palatine building project to his father’s name without Scott’s knowledge.
But, the Hearing Board did determine Bless had violated multiple rules by counseling Scott to testify falsely about their relationship, and by engaging in a conflict of interest by entering into business relationships with Scott while representing her.
Bless challenged the Hearing Board’s findings, saying he believed the alleged violations did not rise above a level requiring anything more than a 60-day license suspension.
The ARDC Review Board, however, said it, like the hearing board, did not find Bless’ arguments persuasive, noting the Hearing Board’s contention Bless had “lied to us and did so blatantly and repeatedly.”
“When looking at the totality of respondent's (Bless’) conduct, we are particularly troubled by respondent's conduct in advising his client to lie in a court proceeding, in making a false statement to the ARDC, and in testifying falsely at his disciplinary proceeding,” the Review Board wrote in its report.
It adds, “We agree with the hearing board that respondent's propensity to resort to dishonesty gives us doubt that respondent will be able to conform his future conduct to ethical norms.”