Jonathan Bilyk Apr. 21, 2014, 12:51pm

A Chicago area lawyer accused of sexually harassing five former female employees, a neighbor and a stranger on the street should be suspended for 30 months, a panel of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission Hearing Board said earlier this month.

The board made the recommendation nearly a year after it held five days of hearings in the disciplinary case the ARDC brought against Highland Park attorney Paul M. Weiss more than five years ago.

In its report, filed Thursday, the ARDC Hearing Board said it found most of the allegations against Weiss, who previously handled some class actions in Madison and St. Clair counties, to be credible and that “his misconduct was offensive and pervasive … and it reflects adversely on his fitness as a lawyer.”

While acknowledging the severity of the potential suspension, the board's recommendation fell short of the discipline sought by ARDC Administrator Jerome Larkin, who suggested disbarment and later, the addition of a provision to the panel's suspension recommendation that it be “until further order” of the Supreme Court.

An attorney for Weiss, Stephanie L. Stewart of the Gloor Law Group in Chicago, provided a statement to the Record indicating he would appeal the ARDC's findings and the proposed sanction.

"The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) has pursued 'ethics' charges against Mr. Weiss related primarily to allegations of sexual harassment, despite a specific rule that prohibits ethics charges for sexual harassment against an attorney unless a court or administrative agency has found that the attorney committed sexual harassment (no court or administrative body has ever found that Mr. Weiss committed sexual harassment)," Stewart wrote.

"And despite the fact that Mr. Weiss has never been criminally charged for any of this conduct, the ARDC has pursued these ethics claims by charging him solely with committing 'criminal' conduct (one additional charge that Mr. Weiss engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice was recommended to be dismissed by the Hearing Board).

"We intend to appeal these issues. At trial, the ARDC’s main witness admitted to previously lying under oath about the events in question, and another witness who claimed Mr. Weiss had inappropriately touched her leg admitted that Mr. Weiss had never committed criminal conduct (as to her, the Board recommended dismissal of all of the charges against Mr. Weiss).  All charges but one involve alleged conduct that occurred more than a decade ago, and none involved clients or the practice of law. Mr. Weiss intends to appeal the findings and the proposed sanction."

The high court has the final say in most attorney discipline matters and Weiss or the ARDC can file exceptions to the Hearing Board report, which if approved, would require the ARDC Review Board to give the case another look.

In its report, the Hearing Board panel wrote that the administrator's disciplinary request  would not allow much opportunity for rehabilitation in Weiss’ case.

“We also note that respondent’s (Weiss’) conduct has had a grave impact on his personal and professional life,” the board wrote. “That impact, which will continue through his suspension and probably for years beyond, will be a constant reminder of the need to adhere to his professional obligations.

It added, “As he surely is aware, any further transgressions will most likely result in the harshest of discipline.”

Weiss and his former business partner, Eric Freed, launched their firm in 1999, and continued to practice law together until 2011. Weiss left his former firm in 2011 and now practices law at Complex Litigation Group in Highland Park.

The two lawyers have been embroiled in court proceedings over the old firm’s finances since it dissolved. A panel of the First District Appellate Court late last year determined that although Freed asked the court to compel arbitration in 2012, he had waived his right to do so by previously arguing against it.

In 2008, the ARDC launched disciplinary proceedings against Weiss in a complaint that eventually grew to include allegations of sexual harassment and unethical lewd conduct against seven women.

The complaint against Weiss detailed claims of assault, battery, phone harassment, public indecency and disorderly conduct stemming from Weiss’ interactions with the women from 2000 to 2010.

Weiss, for instance, is specifically accused of asking five former female employees to have sex with him, inappropriately touching them, repeatedly calling them at home and of exposing himself to them, as well as two other women.

In defense, Weiss’ attorney Samuel J. Manella conceded that Weiss was “not a ‘choir boy,’ is difficult to work with, can ‘talk like a sailor,’ and can be tough and demanding” personally and professionally.

Before the Hearing Board, Manella said the allegations against his client were brought by “Weiss-haters" who were seeking to destroy Weiss for personal reasons or to claim some of his money. He told the board Weiss “might be a jerk … but he’s not a criminal.”

The ARDC panel, however, said in its recently-filed report that it believed the allegations against Weiss to be credible, with evidence in six of the seven counts supporting disciplinary action.

In rendering its recommendation, the panel said it based its decision most heavily on specific allegations brought against Weiss by two former female employees. The panel said Weiss’ “conduct toward those vulnerable young women was highly aggressive and involved intimate physical contact.”

The Hearing Board panel said some of Weiss’ other alleged conduct “although very offensive, did not involve any touching or use of force.” And still other allegations, they said, were against women “less vulnerable than the other employees” and as such, were “less predatory.”

The panel noted that since the disciplinary proceedings began, Weiss has “taken steps to promote a more professional atmosphere in his office,” including installing video cameras “which will deter and record any inappropriate behavior.”

“His decision to monitor his conduct is a positive step and indicates to us that he is willing to conform his conduct to the standards of the profession,” the panel wrote, explaining that this step merely worked to reduce the severity of its disciplinary recommendation.

The Hearing Board panel in Weiss' case was comprised of Morrison attorney Lon Richey, Naperville attorney Rebecca McDade and non-lawyer William Gabbard.

In addition to Manella, Weiss was represented in the Hearing Board proceedings by Stephanie Stewart-Page. The ARDC was represented by Wendy Muchman, Sharon Opryszek and Peter L. Rotskoff.

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