Calif. lawyer convicted of bilking clients, including disabled children

Thursday, October 14th 2004, 8:14 pm
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A jury Thursday convicted a once-prominent attorney who lived a pampered, lavish lifestyle for stealing millions from clients including low-income tenants, disabled children and struggling immigrants.

Prosecutors alleged Nikolai Tehin ripped off more than $2 million. Tehin, 57, was found guilty on all 15 counts of mail fraud, money laundering and related felonies, all connected to accusations that he spent his clients' settlement money on himself and to pay off other clients in a Ponzi-type fraud scheme.

The jury deliberated for nearly two days. Tehin faces 20 years in prison.

Tehin emigrated with his Russian family to California after World War II. He put himself through law school and ultimately achieved the American dream: a 73-foot yacht named ``Escapade,'' a seemingly endless fleet of luxury cars and an $8 million home.

The fraud began in 2001 when he took about $1.3 million owed to dozens of low-income tenants he represented and squandered it on personal and professional expenses. The clients, many of them migrant farmworkers from Mexico, had sued their landlord for failing to keep rental units habitable. Public interest lawyers enlisted Tehin to win the landmark settlement.

He also pilfered from malpractice settlements _ including cases involving a baby born with severe brain damage, two children born with cystic fibrosis and a girl who died while under medical supervision.

In those cases, the alleged victims said Tehin either never reported receiving a settlement check, stalled when they pressed for payment or tried to shortchange them by charging for fictitious expert witnesses.

During the six-week trial, Tehin testified, often in tears, that he entrusted his clients' settlements with his bookkeeper, and that he did not knowingly cheat his clients.

The California State Bar suspended his membership in 2002.