Jim Wirken doesn’t have that rosy and robust Santa Claus aura that he used just three years ago when he held court on the steps of the federal courthouse, schooling reporters on a client’s plea agreement.
The snowy beard still is there, but his face is thinner, his limp is more pronounced and his suit hangs a little looser.
Wirken — once a lion among Kansas City lawyers — was sentenced Wednesday to 13 months in federal prison for money laundering. He offered a typically blunt assessment of his conduct after the hearing.
“If you do something stupid, you have to pay the price,” Wirken said from a bench in a courthouse hallway. “That’s what I did.”
Wirken, 70, pleaded guilty in May to a single money-laundering count, agreeing that he took $116,730 belonging to one of his clients and used it, without permission, in part to pay off a past-due loan.
The Missouri Supreme Court disbarred Wirken in 2012 after determining that he had improperly “borrowed” about $800,000 from seven clients.
The fall from grace has been a long drop for Wirken. While he once worked out of two offices, one in his home and one on the Country Club Plaza, he now lives in a recreational vehicle that doubles as the office for a legal consulting business he operates.
That gives him the chance to save money so he can continue to repay his creditors. The client mentioned in his criminal case has been repaid in full, while Wirken said he is working on the others.
Wirken was a patient mentor of young attorneys and taught them to be generous with poor clients, said lawyer Lou Accurso, who worked for him in the mid-1980s.
“He did a lot of work (for charity) that people never heard about,” Accurso said. “He wasn’t obligated to take it, but he took it anyway.”
That spirit included being active in the community at large, said Brian McCallister, who worked at Wirken’s firm for eight years starting in the late 1980s.
Wirken was a board member of the Easter Seal Society and the Catholic Charities Foundation, worked as a Boy Scout leader and served in volunteer capacities at Bishop Hogan High School, Rockhurst High School, Rockhurst University and St. Louis University School of Law.
He also instructed trial advocacy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.
McCallister said he always would be grateful for Wirken’s example at its best.
“Every person makes mistakes, some worse than others,” said McCallister. “But knowing Jim Wirken, he’ll find a way to succeed and come out a better person.”
Fiddling with a client’s money is a near-certain path to disbarment, legal experts said.
The Missouri Supreme Court has been particularly stern on this issue in recent years, said Barbara Glesner Fines, executive associate dean at the UMKC law school.
“You don’t even have to be dishonest,” Glesner Fines said. “You can just be careless, and you’ll get in big trouble.”
Suzanne Valdez, who teaches professional responsibility at the University of Kansas School of Law, noted that solo practitioners and lawyers at small firms are more likely to get in trouble because of the financial pressures of keeping small businesses afloat.
“These are not bad people,” Valdez said. “It’s like being in a candy store unsupervised, and you’re 5 years old. We say, ‘Don’t take the candy,’ but there’s such temptation.”
Wirken began borrowing, without permission, from clients’ trust accounts in 2007, according to a report from Missouri’s Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roseann Ketchmark characterized Wirken’s borrowing as an “unsustainable Ponzi-type business model.”
“In one instance, Mr. Wirken borrowed $100,000 from a client,” Ketchmark wrote in a court filing. “Mr. Wirken refused to make payments on the loan even when his client was diagnosed with cancer and needed money to pay for the treatment.”
That client later died from the disease, she noted.
At the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan said he found the situation “sad” and “deplorable.”
“The offense is very serious, but it’s clearly out of character for Mr. Wirken, and the positive he has done must also be placed on that scale,” Gaitan said.
He ordered Wirken to surrender for his sentence Jan. 12.
Wirken’s 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.
In 2005, Wirken represented members of the Jackson County Legislature when they faced allegations that they had conducted illegal meetings. Three years later, he headed the legal defense for then-Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser after a former employee filed suit alleging wage and racial discrimination and retaliation.
One of his last cases, in 2011, drew international attention. Wirken represented a Taiwanese envoy to Kansas City who pleaded guilty to committing fraud in foreign labor contracting for mistreating two Filipina housekeepers at her Overland Park home.
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