PUBLIC DEFENDER FACES DISBARMENT

just_in1By JOHN T. WARD

On a typical Thursday in Red Bank’s municipal court, Public Defender Kevin Wigenton may juggle dozens of cases, crafting pleas on behalf of clients he’s met just moments before.

But his toughest case ever may be one he had almost a decade to prepare for, and in which he’s the defendant.

On Wednesday afternoon, Wigenton went before the state Supreme Court to ask that he not be disbarred for shoddy bookkeeping discovered in his solo practice in 2002.

The case centers on allegations arising from an audit that Wigenton himself commissioned, which found a $42,000 shortfall in escrow accounts. Wigenton immediately made up the deficit, but an ensuing review by a special master recommended that Wigenton be suspended for four months.

A a disciplinary review board earlier this year ruled that Wigenton should be censured. Both found the misappropriation “negligent, not knowing.”

But the Office of Attorney Ethics, the court’s lawyer-oversight arm, argued instead that Wigenton should lose his license to practice law.

“This case represents more than recordkeeping violations and shortcomings,” said OAE attorney Maureen Bauman. Wigenton, she claimed, “took great liberties with funds that should have remained inviolate in his trust account.”

Justice Barry Albin pressed Bauman on how her office had concluded Wigenton’s actions were willful when two other inquiries found they were not.

“I think it’s very significant that he had a degree in accounting,” Baumann replied.

“You don’t think accountants act negligently?” Albin pressed. “I mean, even with an accounting background, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t human, that they don’t err or make blunders.”

Bauman said that Wigenton had used loan money intended for his clients as well as other escrowed funds for office expenses. “That’s knowing misappropriation,” she said. “That has nothing to do with making a mistake in adding and subtracting in his books.”

Bauman argued that that Wigenton “should not be given a free pass for the same types of activities that have gotten attorneys disbarred in other cases.”

Wigenton’s attorney, Shalom Stone, said his client had acknowledged and promptly corrected recordkeeping deficiencies, and over the entirety of a law career dating back to 1996 has never otherwise been accused of ethical violations by anyone.

Numerous clients and other attorneys wrote letters attesting to Wigenton’s honestly and integrity, Stone said, adding that Wigenton has never “lived beyond his means” or had any gambling or other personal problems.

“The purpose of the disciplinary process is to protect the public, not to punish,” Stone said. “There is no need to protect the public from Mr. Wigenton.”

Given an opportunity to speak, Wigenton told the state’s highest court that he had “never stolen anything from anyone,” and that the long-dragging case had been “an extremely painful and embarrassing ordeal for my family and me.”

Wigenton is the husband of U.S. District Court Judge Susan Wigenton.

The court adjourned without an immediate ruling.

Earlier Wednesday, Mayor Pasquale Menna told redbankgreen the matter had nothing to do with Wigenton’s work as public defender, an annual appointed position.

Asked if he planned to nominate Wigenton for another term in January, Menna said, “There’s nothing I’ve heard that would give us cause to take any action.”

Here’s the decision of the Disciplinary Review Board from last July: wigenton