Rudy Kurniawan versus William Sinclair: how does this work, exactly?

I’ll come back to ‘self-regulating’ bodies in another post.

The above two gentlemen stand out for their differences.

The first, Rudy Kurniawan, made and sold fake vintage wine. It was a complex personal achievement: bottles, labels, corks, wax, foil: whatever was on the real thing, had to be on his copy of the wine, which we are told here he made in his kitchen.

The second, William Sinclair, was one of many Ontario lawyers who apparently defrauded clients and avoided jail. Here you will find these words:

Oakville lawyer William Sinclair pilfered more than $3 million from widows, charities and the estates of the dead. He was disbarred but never faced charges.

At the time, the Law Society, the lawyers’ professional association, insisted its hands were tied.

After the Star reported all that, the Ontario government made a small change in the law. It added an exception that would allow the Law Society to report suspected criminal activity to police if there is a “significant risk of harm” to the lawyer involved or to another person.

Fast forward to this week, and it looks like virtually nothing has changed. The Star team found that 236 Ontario lawyers over the past decade (out of some 46,000 in the province) have been found to have stolen, defrauded or diverted some $61 million from clients’ accounts.

Fewer than one in five faced criminal charges, and most avoided jail. One of them, Lawrence Burns of North Toronto, was disbarred in 2011 for “misappropriating” almost half a million dollars from clients, but never faced charges.

OK, get to the point, you’re thinking. Here’s the point.

Lawyers in Ontario (Canada) routinely get away with massive malfeasance, generally against widows, orphans, and the stupid. Very few jail terms.

However, if you make and sell some $20 million in fake wines, that nobody can detect, and only the rich have bought, you’re likely to go to jail – for a long time.

Convicted wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan deserves up to 14 years behind bars for making and selling more than $20m worth of fake fine wines so that he could ‘live like a king’, prosecutors have argued.

Even better, Kurniawan has been in jail already – for some 27 months.

‘Simply put, Kurniawan is not sorry for what he did, he is sorry that he was caught,’ prosecutors said.

Lawyers in Canada who defraud clients rarely go to jail, and that always after a trial. And, they never seem to be sorry for what they did, since being caught is rare and even more rarely counts for much.

Now for the Observations:

  • self-governing bodies, like the Law Society of Upper Canada (can you imagine a more self-aggrandizing title?) rarely really govern anything against the interests of themselves.
  • the Rich, being defrauded, will demand huge sentences. I realize the Kurniawan case is in the USA, where it sometimes seems the rich have more judicial ‘sway’ than in Canada, but I think the principle applies: If he’d simply sold bad investment ideas to old ladies, or stolen their retirement, nobody would care nearly so much as fleecing the rich with fake rare wine.

Now for the Dumb Questions:

  • Is there a chance in hell that Kurniawan will get a light sentence?
  • Is there a chance in hell that the many, many malefactors identified in the Star article will ever be forced to repay?
  • Is there a chance in hell that the same malefactors will, albeit late in the game, go to jail? be charged?
  • Will any of them spend 27 months in custody while awaiting trial? Are you kidding? They’re lawyers in Ontario! Get real!
  • Is there a chance in hell that Ontario will change the laws and practices so that rogue lawyers actually pay for their misdeeds?

I end with a quote from the Star editorial:

Somehow, law societies in most other provinces have found a way to report suspected criminal activity involving their members to police. The legal governing bodies in seven provinces report lawyers disciplined for suspected criminal acts to police or to their province’s attorney-general or justice minister. In addition, Quebec is reviewing its rules to allow it to report lawyers suspected of criminal behaviour.

Final dumb question: are you holding your breath waiting?

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