W-H used suspended attorney; Exclusive: District’s counsel used identification number of dead lawyer at least once during suspension

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Wilmer-Hutchins school district’s chief attorney was suspended by the State Bar of Texas last year, and at least once during the suspension he used the state bar identification number of a lawyer who has been dead for 20 years.

Attorney James Belt has had his law license suspended twice since Wilmer-Hutchins hired him in 1998. On a court filing from November 2003, he used the bar number of O.E. Threlkeld, a Seguin lawyer whose legal career began in 1929.

“He’s not practicing from beyond the grave,” said W.C. Kirkendall, a lawyer and former colleague of the late O.E. Threlkeld.

Mr. Belt did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

He is a central figure in the troubled school district, where Texas Education Agency auditors have been investigating finances this week. Last month, school board President Luther Edwards said Wilmer-Hutchins is run by a “team of nine” – Superintendent Charles Matthews, the seven board members and Mr. Belt.

“Some districts talk about a ‘team of eight,'” Mr. Edwards said. “We call it a ‘team of nine’ because we include Mr. Belt.”

Two years ago, the Texas comptroller’s office recommended Wilmer-Hutchins hire a new in-house attorney to replace Mr. Belt – in part because he was charging Wilmer-Hutchins substantially more than lawyers in comparable districts do.

Mr. Belt has been publicly reprimanded by the state bar twice, according to bar records. In 1995, he broke a rule that required him to “take steps to … protect a client’s interests” after that client had stopped using Mr. Belt as her attorney.

In 1999, Mr. Belt violated rules requiring attorneys to keep their clients informed about the status of a case.

Those public reprimands did not affect his ability to practice law. But in 2001, he fell behind in paying his bar dues and a special state tax all attorneys must pay. As a result, he was suspended from September to December and banned from practicing law during that span.

But according to the bar association’s disciplinary records, he continued to do legal work for Wilmer-Hutchins. The district even renewed his contract for three additional years during his suspension.

Because he continued practicing law, an evidentiary panel of the state bar suspended Mr. Belt’s license to practice for six months in June 2003.

The panel also ruled that Mr. Belt’s suspension would be “fully probated.” That means he was allowed to continue practicing law during his suspension as long as he met a lengthy list of requirements. They included working under an attorney monitor, attending a course on better managing a law office and paying $1,500 in fees to the bar association.

Mark Pinckard, projects director for the bar’s Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, said Mr. Belt apparently met those requirements without incident and had his full license returned in December 2003.

But on at least two legal filings Mr. Belt made during his 2003 suspension, he did not list his state bar number, the unique identifying mark of all Texas lawyers. Attorneys typically list the number on all motions and other court filings.

On one motion – an attempt to have a sexual harassment lawsuit against the district dismissed – Mr. Belt listed no bar number at all.

On another, again a sexual harassment case, Mr. Belt instead lists the bar number of Mr. Threlkeld, the Seguin lawyer, who would have turned 100 this year had he not died in 1984.

“He’d come down to the office an hour or two every day and visit around, then go home,” said Mr. Kirkendall, who joined Mr. Threlkeld’s firm in 1975, when the older lawyer had already retired.

“He was the quintessential avuncular Southern lawyer. Very slow and methodical. A prince of a fellow.”

It seems unlikely Mr. Belt chose Mr. Threlkeld’s bar number intentionally. He simply has an easy-to-remember number: 20000000. (Mr. Belt’s number is 02109300.)

While Mr. Belt’s name is listed with Mr. Threlkeld’s number, a third lawyer signed the motion. Thelma Sanders Clardy, a DeSoto City Council member and an associate on the case, signed for both herself and Mr. Belt. Ms. Clardy has done work for Wilmer-Hutchins since at least the late 1990s, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Mr. Pinckard said he did not know whether using another lawyer’s state bar number on a legal proceeding would, by itself, be a violation of the bar’s rules of professional conduct.

Mr. Belt’s disciplinary problems have not appeared to be a major problem for district leaders.

Mr. Edwards, the board president, said Friday that he was unaware of Mr. Belt’s difficulties with the state bar. “I don’t know anything about any suspensions,” he said. “That’s personal. You’d have to ask Mr. Belt about it. I don’t know about it.”

But Mr. Edwards was a board member in March 2002, when the state comptroller’s office released a comprehensive report on the district’s operations.

That review discussed Mr. Belt’s 2001 suspension and criticized the district for not checking the lawyer’s credentials before entering into a contract with him.

It also criticized the district for being too generous with Mr. Belt. It said a qualified in-house counsel should cost Wilmer-Hutchins about $79,000 a year, including benefits. At the time, Mr. Belt was making a base salary of $119,790 a year, under a contract that granted him an automatic 10-percent raise every September.

In addition, the contract says the district will pay all Mr. Belt’s work expenses, including secretarial services, phone bills and office equipment. The contract also requires the district to pay “reasonable costs, including tuition and travel” for Mr. Belt to attend seminars and workshops. The comptroller’s office said both of these requirements are “not standard practice among law firms.”

The comptroller’s report compared Wilmer-Hutchins to three districts it considered peers: DeSoto, Lancaster, and LaMarque. According to the data in the report, Wilmer-Hutchins spent more per-pupil on Mr. Belt in 1999-2000 than any of the peer districts did on their entire legal budgets.

One of the 98 recommendations made in the comptroller’s report was for Wilmer-Hutchins to sever its ties to Mr. Belt and hire a new in-house counsel to replace him – in part because Mr. Belt had apparently failed to inform board members that they were repeatedly breaking state laws regarding open records, illegal contracts and other matters.

The board’s reaction was to give Mr. Belt a three-year contract extension, to August 2007. In a follow-up report, the comptroller’s office said the district had not acted “in the spirit of the recommendation.”