Scandal-Scarred L.A. Lawyer Wins a Bruising Battle With the California Bar

Joe Dunn, the former leader of California’s State Bar Association, faced disbarment over ethical charges

For nearly a decade, Joseph “Joe” Dunn, the former executive director of the California State Bar, has been engaged in a brutal legal battle with the organization he once led, fighting off allegations that he engaged in unethical and deceptive practices when he headed up the association from 2010 until 2014.

On Thursday, Judge Yvette D. Roland of the California State Bar Court dismissed most of the charges against the 65-year-old attorney, ruling that they were based on allegations that had previously been investigated and dismissed. (Dunn’s Attorney, Mark Geragos, is a co-owner of Engine Vision Media, the parent company of Los Angeles.)

A count accusing Dunn of making false statements to the Board about use of State Bar funds for travel to Mongolia and if the trip breached his fiduciary duty remain pending.

A one-time Democratic state senator from Orange County, Dunn was fired from the top post at the Bar in 2014 following an in-house investigation into his alleged improprieties. Attorneys for the State Bar claimed that Dunn had improperly dipped into the organization’s dollars to fund exotic jaunts to El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Mongolia and that he had misled colleagues about a raft of critical legal and policy matters.

Dunn responded by filing a whistleblower suit against his former employer, claiming he was canned because he had uncovered deep corruption within the organization. In 2017, an arbitrator appointed to oversee that case eventually sided with the Bar, dismissing Dunn’s claims of malfeasance.

Bar Association brawls don’t often attract much attention. But the protracted proceedings against Dunn began to draw extra media scrutiny following the downfall of Tom Girardi, the powerful Los Angeles attorney and the husband of Real Housewife of Beverly Hills star Erika Jayne, whose close ties to the city’s legal establishment allowed him to evade punishment for a litany of ethical and financial misdeeds. (Girardi’s former law partner, Howard Miller, was a long-standing member of the State Bar’s board.)

In the wake of the Girardi scandal, Dunn’s critics blasted him as another example of the Bar’s endemic corruption. Geragos fired back, accusing the organization of ginning up a nearly decade-old case against Dunn to deflect from the fallout of the Girardi debacle and the Bar’s failure to protect the public.

While Roland’s ruling effectively dismisses the most serious allegations against the attorney, Dunn is not completely done. He still faces possible sanctions for allegations of financial impropriety relating to a long-ago $4,000 junket he took to Outer Mongolia.

But in a press statement issued after the ruling, Geragos predicted that his client would be fully vindicated. “This case never should have been brought in the first place and today’s ruling is the death knell for this sham prosecution,” he said. “We are now left with the spectacle of the State Bar spending $500,000 to pursue their former Executive Director for a less-than-$5,000 expenditure almost 10 years ago.”

But the Bar’s Special Deputy Trial Counsel Administrator said the final accusations Dunn is facing are “serious offenses,” and that the agency looks “forward to presenting our evidence and prosecuting the remaining charges at the proper time.”

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.