Missouri attorney is suspended, accused of mishandling immigration cases
Sherry Nickel-Karg’s medical bills have been piling up.
The Sugar Creek woman was thrown into financial ruin after a November 2017 wreck totaled her car and left her injured. A surgical scar runs down her left knee.
Unable to work, Nickel-Karg is late on her rent and car payments. It’s a blessing she has a kind landlord, she said, because otherwise she’d be living on the streets.
To add to her distress, she claims in a lawsuit, the attorney she hired deposited her $25,000 check from an insurance payment — money meant to help her recover — into his own operating account and has refused to pay her.
“He took everything,” Nickel-Karg said of the attorney, Allan H. Bell of North Kansas City.
Other attorneys have wondered how Bell, the subject of numerous complaints, remained licensed for so long. He has been accused of faking an expert report and trying to take money from an immigrant in a case the man’s new lawyer said “turns the stomach of any attorney who’s worth their salt.”
And now the state agency charged with investigating misconduct by lawyers has determined Nickel-Karg may not be Bell’s only client missing money. An audit examining his bank account for three years showed Bell took tens of thousands of dollars from dozens of clients, something Nickel-Karg’s new attorney said should be investigated by Clay County prosecutors.
Settlement funds for 40 clients were deposited into Bell’s personal checking account because he did not use a registered trust account to keep client money separate, a requirement of Missouri law, according to his suspension order. His account was frequently overdrawn and resulted in what an investigator believed to be “widespread misappropriation of client funds.”
The Missouri Supreme Court’s agency that investigates attorneys, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, determined Bell rectified the overdraws by acquiring high-interest loans from personal loan companies totaling more than $800,000. He used that money to pay not only clients and third parties but also office expenses, credit payments and repayments to other personal loan companies.
Bell was suspended last month after the supreme court determined there was probable cause to believe he was guilty of multiple instances of professional misconduct. The state’s highest court said Bell posed a “substantial threat of irreparable harm to the public and to the integrity of the profession,” according to the order signed by Chief Justice Zel Fischer.
In an interview with The Star, Bell said he believed he treated his clients properly and fairly throughout his 52 years as a lawyer.
The 78-year-old attorney, who specialized in immigration, employment and labor law, said he could not comment on the accusations that got him suspended because he suffers from memory loss.
Before he became an attorney in 1967, Bell founded a talent agency that handled bands. He was inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2017. He has said he booked well-known musicians, such as rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry.
Bell said he had planned to retire before he was suspended because of medical issues. Diagnosed with Cellulitis, a usually painful skin infection, Bell expects to close his office soon.
“I’m just not in any condition mental-wise, memory-wise, physically-wise, pain-wise, if you will, to continue practicing law,” Bell said, adding that his memory has worsened in the last few months. “That’s why it’s difficult — I’ll use the word impossible — to comment more or less on the allegations.”
Bell said he is working to return files to clients. His law firm, Allan H. Bell & Associates, has a 1.6 of 5 stars on Google reviews.
The disciplinary office learned Bell did not use a separate client account as it asked for copies of documents, such as bank statements and canceled checks. In responding to a request for settlement statements and disbursements made on behalf of clients, Bell provided just eight handwritten sheets, according to the motion for his suspension.
The allegations outlined in the motion include settlement information from 17 clients. Bell deposited anywhere between $3,000 and $68,000 on behalf of individual clients into his account, the disciplinary office found.
And Bell’s clients may not know if they are missing money. The misappropriation was discovered through bank records, not client complaints, records show.
In the 17 cases, there were no documents indicating the clients were aware they received only part of their settlements, sometimes as little as 5 percent, according to information filed with the supreme court. More than 20 clients received an amount that was “significantly less” than the standard 66 percent for personal injury claims or 75 percent for workers’ compensation matters.
For one client, Irma Garcia, Bell deposited more than $30,000 paid to her from an insurance company into his account. Yet Bell’s bank records indicated he only wrote her two checks, one for $200 and the other for $1,700, the disciplinary office said.
Michael Townsend, the attorney representing Nickel-Karg in her lawsuit against Bell, said he does not know what Bell did with his client’s money. He plans to subpoena Bell’s bank records to find out.
Since 2005, Townsend has on only one other occasion filed a complaint against another lawyer. He lodged a grievance against Bell out of concern he was ripping off other people.
“I’ve practiced law for 15 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Townsend said. “It blows my mind that someone would do this.”
The disciplinary office told Townsend it was investigating other complaints against Bell. But told about the audit’s findings, Townsend responded: “Holy moly!”
As with the other allegations, Bell declined to comment specifically on Nickel-Karg’s lawsuit.
7 complaints since mid-2017
Bell has been disciplined before by the state supreme court. In 2015, he was fined $1,500 and placed on an 18-month probation for refusing to refund a client’s advanced fee unless the man withdrew a complaint against him.
In the less than two years since Bell’s probation ended in mid-2017, seven clients have filed complaints against him, the disciplinary office said. One came from Ibrahim Mwangi, one of Bell’s clients who has since been deported.
Petitioning for a review of Mwangi’s case last month in St. Louis, his new attorney argued Bell provided “egregious ineffective assistance of counsel” and accused Bell of trying to access Mwangi’s funds, including his retirement account, without his permission.
“He did everything he could to get Mr. Mwangi deported before something like this could happen,” said Mwangi’s attorney, Kelly Hewitt, whose office took the case pro bono.
Bell faked an expert report he actually wrote himself in Mwangi‘s case, Hewitt told the three judges. She called one of the briefs he filed to the Board of Immigration Appeals equivalent to “word salad.”
Bell also did not inform Mwangi — an “indigent, detained immigrant” — that he could appeal to the federal judges, Hewitt said.
Mwangi feared returning to Kenya because of a land dispute with family members, who he claimed hired members of a criminal gang called Mungiki to persecute him, a concern his attorney said has been recognized as a basis for asylum.
Considering the motion, one of the judges said he understood Mwangi was “in a terrible situation with a terrible lawyer.” During the 22-minute hearing, another judge said he hoped there were not too many attorneys like Bell.
Other lawyers have questioned why Bell’s license was renewed each year considering he did not have a separate fund for clients.
Because Bell did not use a designated trust account, his frequent overdraws were not reported to the disciplinary office, according to the recent audit. That allowed Bell’s mismanagement of the account “to continue for far longer than it should.”
Townsend, Nickel-Karg’s attorney, called the allegations against Bell “rather dire behavior.” He said Bell should be investigated by prosecutors for financial crimes such as money laundering or fraud.
An affidavit signed by Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel shows seven letters of admonition, the least severe sanction in the disciplinary system, dating back to 1994 in Bell’s history. Admonitions serve as warnings to attorneys, but do not restrict a lawyer’s license. Townsend called seven “a whole lot.”
The first admonition accused Bell of having a client execute a release discharging him from past and future liability. Bell accepted the admonition, records show, because he “just wanted to compromise it.”
Another admonition came in 2003 after Bell wrote a client’s healthcare provider to say settlement prospects stemming from a car crash were slim, according to the affidavit. But at the time Bell wrote the letter, the personal injury case had already settled, and the check, which named the healthcare provider as a payee, had been forwarded to Bell, according to disciplinary records.
Bell did not think he acted unethically in writing the letter, records show. But a regional disciplinary committee found his actions “egregious” and his explanation not credible, according to the admonition.
The next year, Bell received another admonition after he provided financial assistance to a client. Bell’s positions presented to the committee were “either very confusing or disingenuous,” according to information filed with a disciplinary committee.
In 2007, Bell accepted an admonition after he failed to elicit information from a client in an immigration case that would have allowed the woman, a Mexican citizen in the U.S. illegally, to apply for a work permit and obtain permanent residence, records show.
The woman married her husband in February 2002 and hired Bell two months later to help her stay in the U.S. legally. For $1,700, Bell filed a petition that a disciplinary committee said served as a possible first step for her get to obtain legal status.
But Bell told the woman to not travel to Mexico to apply for a visa and said it was his “professional judgment” that she should wait for Congress to pass legislation, according to information filed with the supreme court. The legislation never came.
The woman waited nearly four years, “unable to work in this country and afraid each day that she would be arrested and deported,” according to disciplinary records. She then contacted another attorney who quickly learned she fell under a special provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, records show.
With the new attorney, the woman got her permanent resident card within a year, according to court documents.
Bell testified he asked the right questions to get the information. But the committee said a “competent immigration practitioner” would have elicited the information much more quickly.
Bell was then reprimanded in 2009 when he was found to have improperly charged overhead office expenses against a client’s cost and fee deposit, according to the order signed by then-Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith.
In that complaint, a woman who hired Bell to represent her in a wrongful termination of employment case said she repeatedly requested a breakdown of a $1,500 deposit she paid Bell. In his response, Bell listed 22 missed appointments at $50 each, nine letters about appointments at $50 each, 70 long-distance calls and a $200 charge for a bus schedule to show her how to get to his office, according to court records.
Bell refunded the woman her money, according to a joint stipulation that agreed Bell did not act maliciously. Documents stated Bell was remorseful and deeply regretted “whatever losses his conduct caused” the woman’s family.
At the time, the supreme court wanted to know if the incident was isolated. Records indicated the woman’s complaint was investigated but Bell’s billing practices generally were not. No one filed a similar grievance about Bell’s billing, records show.
The most recent admonition was issued against Bell in 2011 after he appeared in Johnson County District Court on behalf of a client in an immigration matter in Kansas — despite not being licensed there, according to an affidavit. He continued to inject himself in a hearing to advocate on behalf of a client despite objections from a prosecutor, court records show.
A transcript quoted Bell as saying: “I know that I’m not admitted to the bar here.”
Bell argued his actions did not amount to practicing law, but a disciplinary committee disagreed, saying: “Speaking for clients in court is what lawyers do.” His conduct, the committee said, showed “a remarkable lack of judgment.”
To Bell’s credit, the committee continued, he was motivated by a concern for his client. The committee said it loathed issuing him yet another admonition because they “apparently have little effect on your practice.”
In one complaint, a man whose son was ordered deported before Bell was retained said he paid the attorney $7,500 for his services. The father talked about ways to get his son back to the U.S., but because of “a breakdown in communication” among his family, nothing was filed, records show.
When the father thought Bell did a poor job and decided to not retain him, Bell declined to reimburse him unless he withdrew a previously filed complaint with the disciplinary office, according to a regional disciplinary committee’s findings.
The father worked an $8.50-an-hour job cleaning machines at a turkey processing plant, the kind of work he did since 1999, court records show. Understanding little English, the father relied on a friend he knew through his family’s church to communicate with Bell. But the friend never before worked as an interpreter in legal proceedings.
Bell agreed to refund the father $4,000 and the man withdrew his complaint, records show.
The man’s son was deported to Guatemala.
As part of Bell’s probation, it was recommended he participate in an ethics program offered by the state known as “Keeping Your Law Practice on Track.”
Lawyer: Client’s money ‘stolen’ by Bell
In another one of Bell’s cases, parts of which were chronicled in 2015 in The New York Times Magazine, one of his clients sought asylum after he had been deported to his hometown of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
For the man, leaving Kansas City meant leaving behind his longtime girlfriend and children, the magazine reported.
Bell gave the man, Kelvin Villanueva, advice that other immigration attorneys told the Times was not a viable option for him.
The magazine related how, in a phone call with Villanueva and his girlfriend, Bell began talking about the Kansas City Royals while his client, who had been deported before, stressed about the appeal that was going to cost them thousands of dollars.
“Now hold on, please, I have to explain something. Let me explain to everybody,” Bell told the couple, according to the Times. “I know none of you know this, and I’m sure none of you care — but the Kansas City Royals baseball team is playing the championship for the American League right now. It’s a big thing here.”
After a short exchange, Villanueva said he did not care about the Royals at the moment.
‘‘I’m worried about my case, about my family,” Villanueva said, according to the magazine.
Asked about Villanueva’s case Thursday, Bell said he did not remember it. It was difficult for Bell to say when his memory problems began, but he saw a doctor a couple of years ago, he told The Star.
As for Nickel-Karg, the woman suing Bell for her insurance money, her attorney thinks she could have gotten more than $25,000, the minimum for auto insurance coverage in Missouri.
Townsend said he plans to add a claim of negligence to the lawsuit, which already accuses Bell of a breach of fiduciary duty.
“Literally she’s in financial ruin because of the combination of what the accident itself did to her,” Townsend said. “And the money that was meant to help her dig out of that hole was stolen.”