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Santa Rosa attorney Don Edgar cited by state for mishandling $56,000 in clients’ funds

Santa Rosa attorney Don Edgar, a longtime member of the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees, will lose his license to practice law for two years as a penalty for professional misconduct involving about $56,000 in funds awarded to clients in a lawsuit over a surgical product.

Edgar also faces possible censure by fellow members of the SRJC board, where he has served as a trustee for 10 years.

Edgar, a personal injury lawyer, was charged by the State Bar of California with 14 counts of misappropriating his clients’ money, described as “an act involving moral turpitude, dishonesty, or corruption in willful violation” of state business code.

The clients were seven women entitled to payments under a massive settlement paid by American Medical Systems for harm allegedly caused by its pelvic mesh products.

Edgar, 61, admitted the charges in a settlement reached with the State Bar in July and approved by the California Supreme Court on Nov. 4. He was placed on probation for three years with his license suspended for at least two years with the possibility of regaining it after two years upon providing proof of rehabilitation.

In an interview Thursday, Edgar said he had returned all the money due to his clients and received nothing for handling their cases.

Edgar said he had relied on a former paralegal to calculate the legal fees he was entitled to, but admitted that he was ultimately responsible for those claims. The settlement said Edgar knew his paralegal had miscalculated his legal fees, but instead of correcting them he “knowingly submitted the false figures” to the entity charged with distributing the American Medical Systems payments to thousands of claimants.

The penalty for misappropriation can be disbarment. The settlement noted that Edgar’s misconduct was “serious” but it also cited “compelling mitigating circumstances,” including his 26 years without discipline, evidence of good character and extensive community service, as well as “extreme stress” from “a toxic marriage” that caused him to be “distracted and despondent.”

“This shows that the misconduct is likely aberrational,” the settlement said, also noting that Edgar had cooperated with the State Bar to resolve the case without a trial.

The settlement required Edgar to pay $26,094 to compensate the State Bar for the costs of prosecuting him.

Edgar said the two-year license suspension starts Jan. 4.

Jordan Burns, president of the SRJC Board of Trustees, said he appointed himself and Trustee Maggie Fishman to a two-member committee to investigate Edgar’s performance, in keeping with a mandate in the board’s policy manual.

There was no discussion in closed session, Burns said, adding that any assessment of a trustee’s conduct must be done in open session.

Censure, defined in the manual as “an official expression of disapproval,” is the only disciplinary option available to the seven-member board, he said.

Board members may be removed only for specific reasons cited in the manual, including physical or mental incapacity, loss of residence in the district, felony conviction, commitment to a hospital or sanitarium and failure to attend meetings for three consecutive months except when prevented by illness.

“We hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical behavior,” Burns said. “We’ve been elected by Sonoma County to act in the best interests of the taxpayers, the college and the students who attend Santa Rosa Junior College.”

Burns said he and Fishman, who do not constitute a board quorum, will meet before the end of the year and determine a time frame for the process.

The board manual says that a trustee facing a misconduct charge will be allowed to present information to the committee. The committee must report its findings to the board “within a reasonable period of time,” the manual says.

The State Bar settlement acknowledged Edgar’s years of public service, including membership on the California Community College Board of Trustees, the Petaluma fair board, Santa Rosa Downtown Association and Santa Rosa’s Board of Community Services.

It also noted his free legal work for people involved in criminal cases and family law matters, as well as his service on the Cardinal Newman High School board, the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese’s pastoral council and coaching for the Annadel Soccer League.

Edgar presented the State Bar with 10 letters from people aware of the misconduct issue who attested to his honesty, integrity, trustworthiness and dedication to community service, the settlement said.

During the period of misconduct, Edgar “suffered from extreme stress due to his marital problems” that cost him a “successful legal partnership and required him to withdraw his candidacy for public office,” it said.

Edgar suspended a fledgling campaign for Sonoma County clerk-recorder-assessor in 2013 after his wife took to Facebook to vent over not being consulted about his decision to run for office.

Lori Williams Edgar went on the campaign’s Facebook page to express her surprise and dismay that her husband was kicking off his campaign. Her message was soon removed from the site, and Williams Edgar acknowledged that her husband had spoken in the past about one day seeking the office.

Edgar confirmed Thursday that he has filed for divorce from his wife.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter?@guykovner.

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