James C. Wirken, once a prominent Kansas City lawyer, pleads guilty to money laundering

From the powerful to the powerless, countless Kansas City area residents once turned to James C. Wirken when they needed legal help.

One of the area’s most well-known lawyers for four decades, Wirken served as a local and national leader of the legal community, mentored young lawyers and contributed to many charitable causes.

But now, at age 69, Wirken is facing a stint in federal prison for the same kind of financial malfeasance that led to the loss of his law license in 2012.

In a brief appearance Monday morning in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Wirken waived his right to a grand jury and pleaded guilty to a felony charge of money laundering.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. According to the terms of Monday’s plea agreement with prosecutors, he cannot ask for less than a year in prison. Sentencing will be scheduled later.

Wirken’s long legal career began in 1970 after he graduated from St. Louis University School of Law. He served as president of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association in 1990, and in 1993 he was named to the executive council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents.

Kevin Regan, a lawyer who has known Wirken since the 1970s, said Wirken was well-respected by judges and other lawyers and volunteered hundreds of hours teaching trial advocacy to students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

“He was one of the top trial lawyers in this part of the country,” Regan said. “This fall from grace is tremendously out of character for the Jim I knew.”

Wirken provided free legal services to many people, Regan said. “His door was always open to those in need,” he said.

Wirken also represented clients in many high-profile cases. He represented then-Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser after a former employee filed suit in 2008, alleging wage and racial discrimination and retaliation. The city settled the case in 2009 for $550,000.

In 2005, Wirken represented members of the Jackson County Legislature after they were sued by a former member of the governing body who alleged they had conducted illegal meetings. The suit was dismissed.

Wirken also was involved in a federal criminal case with international implications. He represented an envoy from Taiwan in Kansas City who faced federal charges of human trafficking. The case garnered extensive media coverage in Taiwan and created tensions over whether the defendant qualified for diplomatic immunity. She ultimately pleaded guilty and was deported in early 2012.

It proved to be on of Wirken’s last cases. Later that year, he surrendered his law license and was disbarred by the Missouri Supreme Court. That action came after state disciplinary authorities accused him of improperly borrowing money from clients.

“The money ‘borrowed’ from the seven clients, not taking into account any accrued interest, totals in the neighborhood of $800,000,” the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel reported to the Missouri Supreme Court. “Virtually none of the money, much less any interest, has been repaid.”

According to the report, those transactions began in 2007 and involved a “repetitive fact pattern” through a number of cases.

After he was disbarred, Wirken gave a brief interview to The Star.

“There were a couple of i’s that needed dotting and t’s that needed crossing, and I didn’t do it,” Wirken said. “Therefore, I have to pay the price for that. A couple of loans were made and I didn’t jump through all the hoops.”

Several former clients have sued Wirken and won significant judgments. In 2010, a Jackson County judge awarded $940,000 to a former client who sued Wirken over loans that never were repaid.

That man has yet to receive any money, but the Missouri Court of Appeals recently ruled that Wirken’s malpractice insurance carrier must pay the judgment.

The company still could appeal that decision, but Jonathan Sternberg, the attorney who is representing Wirken’s former client, said he is hopeful that his client eventually will prevail and recover the money.

He said that Wirken took advantage of the man during a vulnerable point in his life. “Wirken deserves whatever comes to him,” Sternberg said.

And in January, a Jackson County jury awarded another former client $229,000 in damages after she sued Wirken for breach of contract, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and violation of the Missouri merchandising practices act.

Scott Waddell, the attorney who represented the Kansas City woman in that lawsuit, said his client has yet to receive any money.

The allegations in the criminal charge, to which Wirken pleaded guilty Monday, mirror the allegations made in the civil and administrative actions.

The charge stems from transactions in late 2009 and early 2010 in which Wirken withdrew money from a client’s trust account and deposited it in his law firm’s operating account, according to Monday’s written plea agreement.

Wirken then used the money for his personal benefit, according to the agreement.

The six transactions totaled $116,730, and included $50,000 that was used to pay off a loan that Wirken had been in default on since 2008, according to the court document.

Wirken and his attorney, J.R. Hobbs, declined to comment after Monday’s plea hearing.

Waddell said that unless Wirken was “sitting on” millions of dollars that no one knows about, it was doubtful that any of those who have claims against him will receive anywhere near what they are owed.

“It was a case of classic greed,” he said. “Putting your interests in front of your clients.”