Larry Donaldson, the longtime lawyer for the Fresno Police Department, has been suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on three years of probation for mismanaging the estate of former Fresno City Attorney Harvey Wallace, according to State Bar of California documents.
Donaldson, 75, said Tuesday that he’s embarrassed by his punishment, but said the allegations do not include misappropriation of any funds.
“I was trying to help out the family of an old friend,” Donaldson said in a telephone interview. “But I have no background in probate law, so I was basically over my head.”
Donaldson’s suspension began Sept. 3.
I was trying to help out the family of an old friend.
Suspended Fresno attorney Larry Donaldson
Donaldson, who has been a lawyer since 1975, was a senior deputy Fresno city attorney for more than a decade before he retired in 2004. He has been a contract attorney retained by the city for the last six years. He advises the Police Department on legal matters such as police shootings, when police reports or body cameras should be made public, and whether the department should release information pursuant to Public Records Act requests. He also represents police in court when lawyers request confidential police documents.
Assistant City Attorney Francine Kanne said Donaldson “is eligible to provide legal services to the city after Oct. 2, 2016.”
On Monday, Donaldson was in the downtown Fresno courthouse, responding to a subpoena to produce city documents in a family court matter. He said Tuesday that responding to the subpoena was not a violation of his suspension.
Wallace, a former prosecutor and Fresno city attorney who wrote criminology textbooks while teaching at Fresno State, died in June 2007. The State Bar complaint says Donaldson was one of Wallace’s best friends and that he wrote Wallace’s family trust and will and named himself as trustee.
During a probate hearing in May 2008, Donaldson was appointed executor of Wallace’s estate. That same year, the beneficiaries requested an accounting of the estate from Donaldson, which by law is required annually, the State Bar complaint says. Donaldson, however, failed to make the annual reports for several years.
In July 2013, Donaldson “resigned as trustee and executor without having filed an inventory acceptable to the court,” the complaint says. It was not until January this year that reports filed by Donaldson were approved by the court, the complaint says, noting that Donaldson had “incorrectly paid himself legal fees from the estate assets before he realized that such legal fees require court approval.”
“There was no misappropriation of funds,” Donaldson said Tuesday. “I just didn’t do the accounting in a timely manner.”
Donaldson received a lenient punishment because he had no prior record of discipline and stipulated to the facts in the complaint and to the disposition.
By helping the Wallace family, he said, he saved them a lot of money. “If they had to hire a lawyer, it would have cost them $300 to $400 an hour,” he said.
The complaint also says Donaldson faced an uncharged violation: In 2013, the beneficiaries sued Donaldson for mishandling the trust and estate. In September 2014, Donaldson reached a civil settlement with the beneficiaries. A provision in the settlement required the beneficiaries to withdraw their complaint to the State Bar about Donaldson. The complaint says the settlement provision is a violation of California’s Business and Professions Code because it prohibits a lawyer, whether as a party or counsel to a lawsuit, from seeking an agreement from the plaintiff to withdraw from any disciplinary complaint.
Donaldson said Tuesday he did not write that provision of the settlement.
The State Bar documents say Donaldson received a lenient punishment because he had no prior record of discipline and stipulated to the facts in the complaint and to the disposition, thereby avoiding a costly trial from the State Bar court. Donaldson also has a record of volunteer service, working pro bono on behalf of foster parents and on the board of Tulare County Legal Aid.