by Eric Nalder
Times Staff Reporter
TACOMA -- Attorneys' Legal Support Services, Inc. was the first listing under "Attorney referral services" in the Tacoma yellow pages, and lots of people called it.
Many of them spoke with the smooth-talking owner, Richard Wayne Ben-Neth, who promised help for their legal problems. The business quickly became so successful that Ben-Neth says he was preparing to open branches in Bellevue, Bellingham and Vancouver, Wash.
But Ben-Neth was not, as many of his clients had assumed, a lawyer.
He was a paroled convict.
Now several outraged clients are out thousands of dollars they may never see again, and the state Department of Corrections, the Pierce County prosecutor's office and the state bar association are red-faced.
"Ben-Neth knew just enough to make the state chase their tails around and look like a bunch of fools," said Joyce Toso, a former military security officer from Spanaway who lost nearly $6,000 she gave Ben-Neth in trust. "He's sly. He's dangerous."
Ben-Neth, 41, started his business -- which he maintains was formed to provide paralegal service -- while he was in a state prison work-release facility. He continued to dispense legal advice as a parolee for nearly two years before authorities acted.
He even hired an attorney, Anton Miller, who admits he worked on cases with Ben-Neth and shared office space with him.
One of Ben-Neth's victims, Marianne Stacy, complained in February 1985 to the state bar association and later to the Pierce County prosecutor that the phony lawyer took $900 from her on a promise that he'd handle her divorce, which he failed to do, said her attorney, Craig Adams of Puyallup.
But the bar association replied that it oversees real attorneys -- not fake ones -- and took no action. The police investigation didn't start for months, while Ben-Neth continued dealing with the public.
"Unauthorized practice of law is a little niggling offense -- just a misdemeanor -- no big deal to authorities,' said Adams. "Things just slid and slid and slid."
While things were sliding, Ben-Neth took $17,000 from three other clients to whom he was giving bogus legal advice about a deal with a contractor. Ben-Neth has never returned that money, nor has he paid back the $900 he took from Stacy, records show.
"I sympathize with the parole officers," said Keith MacFie, a Tacoma attorney representing Toso and the three who lost the $17,000. "They have an intolerable caseload. But what happened to these people is due to a failure to supervise this guy."
Ben-Neth wasn't arrested until November, when a former secretary made numerous allegations against him, including the fact that he owned an unauthorized handgun. Other complaints poured in at the same time to police and to a parole investigator, James Woody, who thn conducted a thorough investigation.
Ben-Neth's parole from a 1981 prision sentence for theft and check fraud was revoked last week by the parole board, which found he had pretended to be a lawyer, masappropriated his clients' money, traveled out of the state without permission, owned a handgun and allegedly attempted to sexually assault the secretary who complained about him, according to parole-board member Phyllis Kenney. A new minimum prison term will be set later.
In Pierce County Superior Court last month, Ben-Neth pleaded guilty to unauthorized practice of law, a misdemeanor.
But the felony charges alleging that he stole money from his clints were dropped by the Pierce County prosecutor after Ben-Neth promised that he would pay back the $17,000 he took from three clients. He hasn't paid the money back, and the victims' lawyer said they don't believe he ever will.
The felony charges can't be reinstated. There were problems with those charges, including the fact that authorities searched Ben-Neth's office without a warrant, said Pierce County Deputy Prosecutor Jack Nevin. Nevin indicated, though, he might take other action against Ben-Neth.
"Mr. Ben-Neth has touched the lives of many, many more people than those victims," said Nevin. "I'm certainly going to keep my options open."
Ben-Neth had played lawyer before, and authorities knew it. Records show that in 1981 he got in trouble with probation officers in King County for unauthorized practice of law while he was on probation. Yet two years later, his parole officer allowed him to start work as an independent paralegal in Tacoma, records show.
Tacoma attorney Charles Brocato, who hired Ben-Neth to do investigations, legal research and to serve papers -- the type of work paralegals are authorized to do -- said he feels now that paralegals should either be licensed or not allowed to work on their own.
He also said Ben-Neth did poor legal research, and that he was "the biggest storyteller of all time."
Miller, who represented Ben-Neth before the parole board, called his client a "pathological liar" and a con man.
Bar association lawyers last week recommended that Miller be disbarred for aiding and abetting Ben-Neth.
Miller, 42, said when he joined Ben-Neth in 1984, he thought the man was offering a clerical service to people filing their own lawsuits. But Miller admits he didn't inform authorities when he realized that Ben-Neth was a convict who was dispensing legal advice. Miller continued accepting pay from Ben-Neth in exchange for taking over cases that Ben-Neth had mishandled.
"I tried to 'deep six' his operation by telling people he was incompetent," Miller said
Ben-Neth advertised his legal services in the Tacoma phone book yellow pages, and had more than 100 clients, according to Miller.
Two secretaries who had worked in his office said clients asking for a lawyer were referred to Ben-Neth. A former receptionist said she heard him tell people he was a lawyer.
But Miller said Ben-Neth had him handle cases that had to be taken to court.
Ben-Neth testified before parole board member Kenney last week that he was not a fake lawyer but a paralegal.
Ben-Neth learned his law by reading books in prison and by taking some community-college courses, said Woody, the parole investigator who arrested him.
A Married man with a penchant for fancy cars, Ben-Neth changed his name from Laurence Wayne Bennett in 1981 after he was convicted of first-degree theft and check fraud. He has also been convicted of heroin possession, forgery and false imprisonment, court records show.
The Marin Corps gave him a less-than-honorable discharge in 1968 because he deserted, court records show. He has been charged with other crimes in Canada, California and Arizona.
In 1981, Ben-Neth told probation officer Karen Portin that he had a $100- to $200-a-day drug habit.
Woody said he is still getting calls from people who say they were bilked by Ben-Neth.
Here are some of the victims' stories:
King County Deputy Prosecutor Pat Sainsbury, chief of the fraud division, said he has urged the bar to file civil injunctions against people like Ben-Neth before they harm their clients.
- Shari Inderbitzen fired her lawyer, Barbara Je Sylvester, after Ben-Neth convinced her he could do a better job in a child custody case. When he failed to do some work, causing her nearly to be held in contempt of court, she demanded return of $300 she had given him. Ben-Neth told her he'd deduct the amount from her bill, which he said by then had risen to $1,500. Inderbitzen rehired Sylvester.
- Sam Latzer of Deerfield Beach, Fla., paid Ben-Neth $26,000 in September 1984 for bail and expenses in an effort to get his daughter released from the Washington state women's prison at Purdy.
His daughter wasn't released, and he never got the money back. Latzer said he knew Ben-Neth wasn't an attorney, but he thought he had the legal knowledge to free his daughter. Latzer, 65, said he has to get a job because the $26,000 was his retirement nest egg.
- Olav and Wanda Kleiva, an elderly Tacoma couple, said after Ben-Neth helped them with some legal matters, and referred them to a real Tacoma attorney for a court case, he convinced them to invest $5,000 in a river-rafting deal. He promised them an immediate $500 profit, but when he gave them a $5,500 check it bounced.
- Toso said she found Ben-Neth in the yellow pages, and he was cheaper than other lawyers. He was helping her unsuccessfully on a post-divorce matter when he convinced her and a neighbor, retired Army Sgt. Eugene Perrine, that a contractor working on their land was in financial trouble and was bound to mess up the work.
He told Toso and Perrine to place $5,995 each in his trust account so that they could take the contractors to court. No lawsuit was filed against the contractor, and Ben-Neth spent the money, court records show.
Toso called Ben-Neth's office to check on the case on Nov. 6, but by then Ben-Neth was under investigation. His secretary instructed Toso not to refer to Ben-Neth as her lawyer, but as her "secretarial backup."
But bar spokesman Wayne Wilson said the bar will not try to supervise anyone who isn't a licensed attorney.
Tacoma police Maj. Duane Ottgen suggested that anyone considering hiring a lawyer check with the bar association to make sure the attorney is legitimate.
This article was originally featured on the front page of the Seattle Times, Thursday, March 27, 1986.