1. David Weil: Former Steigerwalt crony has started a new bankruptcy firm.

2. Kerry Steigerwalt: Thousands of his clients paid but received no service.
3. Gary Sehnert: Local attorney helped stiffed Steigerwalt client.
  • 1. David Weil: Former Steigerwalt crony has started a new bankruptcy firm. 2. Kerry Steigerwalt: Thousands of his clients paid but received no service. 3. Gary Sehnert: Local attorney helped stiffed Steigerwalt client.
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On March 24, San Diegan Laura Perry received a letter from Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacific Law Center, once San Diego’s best known, most notorious, and most aggressively advertised law firm. Perry, 73, had paid $2000 to the firm to handle a Chapter 7 bankruptcy for her. She had received no service — one of thousands who allegedly paid money up front but got little or no legal help.

The Steigerwalt law firm, which went out of business last year, offered her a refund amount of $252, to be paid in installments. “The agreed amount will be paid, but [the firm] is financially unable to pay it ‘today,’” lamented the letter, which included a check for $42 signed by Steigerwalt. Perry’s attorney Gary Sehnert, who successfully handled her bankruptcy after Steigerwalt’s lawyers failed to act, advised her not to cash the check. “Once you do that, then they can argue that you agreed to the settlement,” says Sehnert, who did not charge her for any of his work.

On April 18, Perry got a second letter, fretting that the law firm’s “financial condition has worsened.” She would not get the promised April check. She also got a solicitation phone call from one Joe Rivera, representing the law firm, who wanted her to take a lowball settlement of $105. “I said that is a rip-off,” says Perry. “Every time I think of [this] it makes my blood pressure rise.” Rivera would not reply to my questions.

Pacific Law Center was founded by Larry Majors, a nonlawyer convicted felon who vamoosed from Texas after a judge called a law firm he operated “a borderline criminal enterprise,” according to a 2009 San Diego lawsuit, since dismissed. After getting into trouble running several law firms, Majors set up Pacific Law Center in 1993 with his son Austin Majors, also a nonlawyer, as executive director, according to the lawsuit. Steigerwalt, who had been with the public defender’s office for 6 years and in private practice for 18 years, took over the firm in 2008 and attached his name to the front. The firm specialized in drunk driving, personal injury, defective product, loan modification, and bankruptcy cases. Taking over the Pacific Law Center “was the worst decision of my life,” says Steigerwalt, who once again has his own firm. “It cost me millions.”

That April 18 letter to Laura Perry stated, “Vendors and creditors of [the defunct legal institution] claim the firm owes them more than $3 million.”

The sum could be larger than that. Steigerwalt hired the Chicago law office of J. Kevin Benjamin, who set up a Mission Valley office. Steigerwalt pays Benjamin $250 to take over each client who has not been provided service. Benjamin explains to the people that he is not replacing the shuttered law firm. He will take the case himself for a very low fee of, say, $395 for a Chapter 7.

Benjamin says he saw the closed law firm’s records: there were more than 6000 people who had paid some money and not received their service — a number that Steigerwalt, although conceding the firm is insolvent, says is too high. “Some had paid in full, some had not,” Benjamin says. Depending on the average amount shelled out, the money owed to nonserviced clients could exceed $3 million, he says. And that doesn’t include vendors and other creditors.

San Diego attorney Scott Harris feels sorry for “all the people that got screwed, that paid $1500 to $3000 and never got service. Lawyers at [the law firm] had retainer agreements that permitted them to get out of the liability responsibility on the cases they were handling.”

In his frequent trips to San Diego, Benjamin and an assistant handle “70 to 100 people a week who had paid and not gotten services,” he says, asserting that he is losing money on the arrangement. Initially, “people were calling every five minutes. I had to get a separate receptionist and a different line. Some were saying I was a crook. I said, ‘I don’t have your money.’” Clients thought that the up-front fees paid to Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacific Law Center were paid to Benjamin, and that wasn’t so. He must stress to each cuckolded client that he is not taking over the Steigerwalt firm or the clients’ files. He has to begin every case anew. “This has been going on for a year, and I am debating if I will do it anymore.”

Benjamin says that investigators from the U.S. trustee’s office in San Diego, which oversees bankruptcy cases, have been looking into Steigerwalt customers who did not get served. The probers went over Benjamin’s files and interviewed one of his assistants. “They have their own investigation going of Kerry Steigerwalt,” Benjamin says. “They were asking us about Kerry and about our own operations.” Also, Benjamin says he talked briefly with an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who later checked with Benjamin’s lawyer. But the subject of those inquiries was loan modifications, in which Benjamin is not involved. Steigerwalt’s firm got into the controversial loan modification business.

Steigerwalt says he is not aware of any Federal Bureau of Investigation probe. As is traditional, the agency will not confirm or deny the existence of a probe. The U.S. trustee’s office, while not confirming a formal investigation, did reveal that it has been actively involved, stating: “The U.S. Trustee’s office responded to inquiries from individuals who had concerns about their legal representation in bankruptcy cases after the closure of Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacific Law Center.”

“Benjamin is making a grand effort to do what is right,” says Sehnert. However, “It would be really nice to have an accounting of that $3 million.” He notes that the check that Laura Perry received was from “Kerry Steigerwalt’s Pacific Law Center Client Trust Account.” Money in client trust accounts belongs to clients, not to the lawyers, who should follow strict accounting procedures, he says. However, a former member of the firm says that in this instance the money paid up front did not have to go into client trust accounts.

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Comments

Don Bauder June 22, 2011 @ 4:07 p.m.

I have no idea if David is related to John Weil. John is a friend of mine. I will ask him. Best, Don Bauder

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Javajoe25 June 22, 2011 @ 12:50 p.m.

Unreal stuff, Don;

Seems bad enough when one is in such a financial bind that bankruptcy is the only option, but to then get ripped off by the lawyers you hire to help you with it, is too much. Was it Shakespeare who said, "First we kill all the lawyers."? Even back then, they knew. I hope they hang these leeches, but I know they won't because...you know: they're lawyers.

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Don Bauder June 22, 2011 @ 4:15 p.m.

In this economy, the bankruptcy business is a huge boon for lawyers in the field. The abuses by Pacific Law Center, and then Kerry Steigerwalt's Pacific Law Center after he took over, have been egregious. This law firm was just a marketing machine -- spending heavily on advertising to draw people in, having fast-buck hucksters talk them into paying big sums for service, then not providing that service. Best, Don Bauder

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SurfPuppy619 June 24, 2011 @ 1 a.m.

This law firm was just a marketing machine -- spending heavily on advertising to draw people in, having fast-buck hucksters talk them into paying big sums for service, then not providing that service.

This is exatly what Sam Spital did, and how he lost his law firm after he was successfully sued (by now disbarred lawyer Pat Frega-of which the Reader did a COVER issue on)) for legal malpractice.

I am at a loss as to how Majors can keep setting up these fraudulent law firms.

The State Bar is a joke, but even they should be able to stop this fraud by Majors

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Don Bauder June 24, 2011 @ 7:45 a.m.

Weil says that Larry Majors has absolutely no stake in Golden State. Best, Don Bauder

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bestugot June 22, 2011 @ 5:04 p.m.

REALLY DON??? Here is your chance to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner and this is what you give us. Seems to me there is a new firm out there heavily advertising very similar to Pacific Law Center and Kerry Steigerwalt's Pacific Law Center. I don't know much about reporting, but it seems to me the prominent reporters report the news before it happens??? I mean surely you can see as a reporter that there is a much juicier story here and you barley scratch the surface. This is a feeble attempt at a sequel to your last KSPLC installment,the one that got more hits than any other column the Reader has ever published (congrats by the way). This is a dead horse Don that with a little effort and research from you could have been revived, which by the way could have helped so many people do the right thing. I can see you Don pecking away at that old 1950 typewriter grinning from ear to ear like a cheshire cat as you wrote this story, thinking wow this will be my best ever, I'm the greatest reporter alive. Oh so sorry Don... This article is weak and lacking an 'F' as far as articles go. With just a little bit more effort on your behalf you would've and could've written a sequel that would have blown San Diego and the legal profession away. The thing is Don I think you know this article fell short, which means 1 of 2 things??? YOUR SCARED to write the real story or it is really time to put that old typewriter in the closet and call it quits. I believe in you Don, we believe in you, I know in my heart of hearts that you can and will redeem yourself, so keep pecking away my friend and enlighten us San Diegans as to whats really going on here, and who can and cannot be trusted in these troubling times when bankruptcy appears to be our only out..

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Don Bauder June 22, 2011 @ 7:33 p.m.

I collect antique typewriters, but a 1950 model is too recent to make my collection, which consists almost entirely of instruments from the late 19th century and very early 20th century. The column you disparage does mention another law firm that is advertising very heavily; it's headed by ex-KSPLC lawyers. There is another one with Austin Majors as its chief marketer; I got some information on it, but left it out of the column for space reasons. So you might give me more information on what you think should have been in this column. My email is don.bauder@mac.com and phone is 619-546-8529. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister June 22, 2011 @ 8:53 p.m.

Methinks bestugot's picture behind the cur-tain be besotted. Chameleon-like, he (I suspect) is a man (?) of a thousand monikers. Mensch that you are, Don, you didn't take his bait.

The bells! The BELLS! The B E L L S!

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Don Bauder June 23, 2011 @ 5:50 a.m.

There are a lot of irate people -- victims and former insiders -- who think that any journalist is not getting the true story. They came out of the woodwork after my 2010 column on Steigerwalt. I ask for information from such folks; we need their complaints in case we tackle the subject again. Best, Don Bauder

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MURPHYJUNK June 23, 2011 @ 3:36 p.m.

those ads on tv ( I dare not mention the name of the firm, lest they retaliate since they are lawyers )

are just as smarmy as the Kerry crapola was

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Don Bauder June 23, 2011 @ 5:14 p.m.

I would guess that they are produced by the same (purported) ad man, Austin Majors. He was a top executive of Pacific Law Center, and then, briefly, Kerry Steigerwalt's Pacific Law Center, and is now marketing director of two law firms launched by Steigerwalt alumni. Best, Don Bauder

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gekko June 26, 2011 @ 5:05 p.m.

Regarding lawyers - In the movie "Barbarians At The Gate", James Garner's character, F. Ross Johnson, says the only things he asks of lawyers are a calendar at Christmas time and that they get back in their coffins before the sun comes up.

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Don Bauder June 27, 2011 @ 5:52 a.m.

Spoken like a lawyer, SP. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder June 27, 2011 @ 5:51 a.m.

Then there is the one about a liar's club in a small town. All the men were lined up to tell their whoppers. The first said, "Last winter it was so cold that I saw a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets." All the participants decided that this lie could not be topped, and the contest was called off. Best, Don Bauder

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SurfPuppy619 June 26, 2011 @ 11:21 p.m.

Mimdy-I like your new profile pic, which dog of yours is that???? Good looking pup.

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Don Bauder June 27, 2011 @ 5:56 a.m.

Do you suppose Mindy's new dog is named SurfPuppy? Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder June 27, 2011 @ 5:55 a.m.

This sounds very much like the marketing program that Austin Majors and confreres set up at Pacific Law Center. Austin Majors is marketing director for Golden State, Weil's firm. Weil may respond to your complaint, if he likes. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder June 27, 2011 @ 7:25 p.m.

Chow Chows can be very temperamental. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are even-tempered, but maybe your dog has more Chow genes. You are flirting with a lawsuit keeping this dog. Best, Don Bauder

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SurfPuppy619 June 28, 2011 @ 12:12 a.m.

Last year, he bit my neighbor and about three weeks ago, he bit my neighbor's wife. He's lucky to still be around, the little jerk.

================ LOL...Mindy-my two Pitties got into a small tussle 7 weeks ago today-and my Senior, who has NO FRONT TEETH, unintenionally nealry bit my finger tip off!!!! I still love her to death, awesome girl!

My finger is healing but it was touch and go the first two weeks for tip amputation due to an infection and bad antibiotics.

I love my dogs. Nothing will ever change that.

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SurfPuppy619 June 28, 2011 @ 2:15 a.m.

I can handle my two-it was just a freak accident, had grabbed Nelly by the collar, she was on top, and my hand slipped, and the second round I grabbed Nelly's collar and then tried to grab nala's collar but somehow my ring finger ended up on her mouth! Ouchie!

But, my two are only 75# each, if they were bigger I would have a problem, or if this happened on the street with a bigger dog I would have a problem, so I bought 4- 4OZ/17% pepper sprays and have them in the house, car and carry one on walks, I feel sorry for the dogs on the next fight!

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cstarrett June 27, 2011 @ 7:24 p.m.

I'm a local bankruptcy attorney and I cringe every time I hear the name Pacific Law Center for obvious reason. As for J. Kevin Benjamin, he isn't even admitted to practice law in California. I cannot see how he can be giving quality representation for the small amount of compensation that he appears to be receiving. I hope these former PLC clients are jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

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Don Bauder June 27, 2011 @ 7:27 p.m.

I think you meant to say that you hope the former PLC clients AREN'T jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Best, Don Bauder

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cstarrett June 27, 2011 @ 8:52 p.m.

Fortunately for my clients, I'm a much better attorney than I am a typist.

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Don Bauder June 28, 2011 @ 1:15 p.m.

You don't have to master typing skills to get into the bar. Best, Don Bauder

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SurfPuppy619 June 28, 2011 @ 12:08 a.m.

I'm a local bankruptcy attorney and I cringe every time I hear the name Pacific Law Center for obvious reason. As for J. Kevin Benjamin, he isn't even admitted to practice law in California.

He doesnt need to be licensed in CA if he is only doing federal BK cases.

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Don Bauder June 28, 2011 @ 1:17 p.m.

Anybody disagree with SurfPup's statement? Best, Don Bauder

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JustWondering June 28, 2011 @ 7:42 a.m.

Makes you wonder not only about his typing skills, but his ability to understand simple rules too.

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Don Bauder June 28, 2011 @ 1:20 p.m.

When you leave out a negative contraction, aren't, thus making positive a statement that you meant to be negative, you can't blame your typing. Confession: I have done the same many times. Sometimes I don't catch the error. Best, Don Bauder

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Twister June 28, 2011 @ 2:45 p.m.

I took it to be high comedy. I just love it when I do that and nobody notices! But I am EVIL.

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Don Bauder June 29, 2011 @ 12:13 p.m.

In some ways, it's disappointing when nobody catches your egregious error. You worry that nobody is reading your prose. Best, Don Bauder

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arod Oct. 29, 2011 @ 8:49 p.m.

There is a huge amount of bribery in San Diego and around the country in America, perhaps even more than in the courts of any other country in the world. Nearly all bribes are given to the judges by lawyers; this is considered the safe way to bribe a judge. Bribery is rarely spoken about, just understood. People pay huge amounts of money to law firms with connections, the lawyers walk around with a certain amount of cash in their jacket, and they pass it to the judges in their quiet moments together. It is mostly all cash of course. Sometimes the bribery is blatantly obvious, because of the other crimes that lawyers and judges commit in broad daylight together. In the courtrooms you can see the judges being extremely friendly to their rich lawyer friends who pay big bribes.In America, government-appointed lawyers are the means by which hundreds of thousands of poor people are railroaded into prison. It is the job of the victim's lawyer to "sell the deal" that the judge has decided will happen. This is Star Chamber justice. Though a social explosion is lurking beneath the surface - with judges starting to get murdered, and people lighting courthouses ablaze. A 1996 San Diego Superior Court corruption case in which three judges and a lawyer were convicted of taking bribes or influence peddling. Since neither county nor state would prosecute, federal prosecutors had to do the job under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) statute. Former San Diego Judge Michael Greer admitted taking $75,000 in bribes in exchange for having given a lawyer preferential treatment. Greer was placed on suspension after pleading guilty. Judges G. Dennis Adams, James A. Malkus and attorney Patrick R. Frega were convicted under the RICO statute. But in June of this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned racketeering charges against Adams and Malkus, claiming the jury had been given inaccurate instructions. All of these men have remained free since 1996 as they appeal their cases.

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SurfPuppy619 Feb. 8, 2012 @ 11:31 p.m.

arod, the cut and paste you just posted was from June 1999, 13 years ago

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Suds Feb. 8, 2012 @ 6:27 p.m.

"He doesnt need to be licensed in CA if he is only doing federal BK cases."

BOGUS. He must be either a member of the California Bar and the Bar of the U.S. Southern District of California, or be admitted for a single case on a Pro Hoc Vice basis.

I was local co-counsel on a case with a California attorney based in San Francisco; the Bankruptcy Judge would not approve him as counsel until he joined the local District Bar - which you can only do if you are a member of the State Bar.

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SurfPuppy619 Feb. 8, 2012 @ 11:33 p.m.

Pro Hoc Vice is always open, but I thought as long as you were a member of ANY states bar you were free to practice in any of the US District courts, as long as you were admitted.

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seantor_2000 Feb. 10, 2012 @ 9:16 a.m.

I know all of them. I was hired at Pacific Law Center, and lasted about 4-6 weeks. I was personally hired by Austin Majors (after having been referred in by Larry Majors), and worked directly for Don Bokovoy for my brief tenure. All I can say is, as soon as I started asking questions and attempting to take contol of the paralegal department within the BK division (which I was specifically hired to do), I was summarily dismissed. I came on board just as Steigerwald was completing the purchase deal and it all went south from there. I know of Kerry Steigerwald from within the legal community and I honestly believe he got screwed over on this deal. Just my take. . .

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