The Great Pretender

He founded a law firm in Corpus Christi. He referred personal-injury cases to powerful litigators across South Texas. And he lived the high-rolling life of a successful plaintiff’s attorney. There was just one problem: Mauricio Celis was not a lawyer.

May 2010By Comments

A MATTER OF DEGREE: The February 2009 trial of Mauricio Celis confirmed that he did not have a law license.

Before the local district attorney dubbed him “the biggest con man in the history of Nueces County,” Mauricio Celis led the life of a high-powered plaintiff’s lawyer. At the time of his arrest, in November 2007, at the age of 36, he owned a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, and a BMW; he traveled by private jet; and he owned a stake in the Havana Club, the go-to spot for Corpus Christi’s bank, oil, and gas executives. As a founding partner of CGT Law Group International—which boasted offices in eight cities, including Beverly Hills, Miami, and Mexico City—Celis made more than enough money to spread around. He contributed nearly half a million dollars to Democratic political campaigns from 2002 to 2007, and his largesse extended to the local diocese, to which he donated $100,000 for its newly established Catholic high school. He was a rainmaker, procuring lucrative personal-injury cases that he referred out to South Texas litigators, and he counted Corpus Christi’s biggest power brokers among his friends. There was only one problem, which Celis had skillfully managed to work around: He was not actually a lawyer.

That Celis was an impostor might never have come to light if not for a rival personal-injury lawyer, Thomas J. Henry. “I had heard about Celis’s basic background, which did not include finishing college, much less going to law school,” Henry told me. “So I was surprised when I saw a file at the courthouse that said he was suing a lawyer in the Valley for attorney’s fees.” Henry—whose ubiquitous TV commercials and billboards have made him instantly recognizable in Corpus Christi—launched his own investigation into Celis’s credentials in May 2007, which confirmed that he had no law degree. And so that fall, Henry took the next logical step for any savvy plaintiff’s attorney: He began airing thirty-second ads inviting Celis’s clients to hire him. “Mauricio Celis, with the law firm of CGT . . . does not have a law license in the state of Texas, nor does he have a license to practice law anywhere in the world,” Henry announced in a commercial that caught the attention of then-Nueces County district attorney Carlos Valdez. “If you have hired this law firm, you may be entitled to a refund of all the attorney’s fees paid. Contact me immediately.”

So began one of the more embarrassing chapters of South Texas jurisprudence, one that continues to reverberate through Corpus Christi, where Celis, who still faces charges of perjury, money laundering, and theft, will stand trial for a second time this spring, in this case for impersonating a public servant (more on that later). Celis’s conviction last year on fourteen counts of falsely holding himself out to be a lawyer sent a chill through the city’s legal community, since he and CGT had referred many cases to local attorneys in exchange for a substantial cut on the back end. “Any lawyer who shares fees with a nonlawyer runs the risk of disciplinary action from the State Bar, including potentially losing his license,” explained deputy attorney general Eric Nichols, who assisted Valdez in his prosecution of Celis. “That’s why it was so essential for Mauricio Celis to pretend to be a lawyer, which he wasn’t. The state defined Celis as a case runner.” Case runners—people who are, for all practical purposes, ambulance chasers—“solicit cases and then shop them out to lawyers,” Nichols said.

So how exactly did he get away with it? “I talked to Celis once, and I knew he wasn’t a lawyer,” one Corpus Christi attorney told me on the condition of anonymity. “A truck driver, maybe, but not a lawyer. We briefly discussed a case I had worked on, and it was clear from his responses that he wasn’t who he said he was. But the money was so good that I think people didn’t ask questions.”

The Celis case shone a little bit of light on the inner workings of South Texas plaintiff’s attorneys, a world that inspired Brownsville lawyer Carlos Cisneros to write a John Grisham—like thriller titled, naturally, The Case Runner. Though a work of fiction, the 2008 novel is informed by Cisneros’s time as a prosecutor in the Cameron County district attorney’s office and now as a solo practitioner. “When I went into private practice, three or four different people approached me and said, ‘Hey, I can get you criminal cases,’ ” Cisneros recalled. “They said, ‘You’re just starting out, but I can get you a lot of work. I can steer clients your way, and if they hire you, then we can settle up.’ Of course, I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe that kind of stuff went on. All the things I had studied in law school—ethics and the rules of professional conduct—were still very fresh in my mind.”

The Case Runner depicts a broken justice system in which cops alter accident reports to fault the party with the most insurance, coroners are persuaded to write autopsy findings that favor plaintiffs, doctors are coached on what to say on the stand, witnesses are bribed, judges are influenced by trial lawyers’ hefty contributions, and pro-plaintiff juries deliver big verdicts. Although Cisneros admits to having taken dramatic license, anyone familiar with civil litigation in South Texas—a region that the American Tort Reform Association has designated a “judicial hellhole” for six out of the past nine years—will notice more than a passing resemblance. Even Cisneros has been surprised by his novel’s prescience. In The Case Runner, a mother and son die in a rollover accident and leave behind no immediate relatives (or so it seems); a Corpus Christi firm, in turn, hires someone to play the grieving widower, files a wrongful-death suit, and collects millions. “I described the plot to a lawyer I know,” Cisneros said. “And she exclaimed, ‘That’s amazing! That sounds just like a case I’m involved in!’ ”

At the heart of this real-life legal swamp are, of course, the case runners. “A lot of big law firms have their own investigators on the payroll,” Cisneros explained. “Most of the time they’re legitimately investigating cases in preparation for trial, but they’re also out there talking to their contacts, combing the fields, tracking down the next big case. When they get a lead, they might approach the victim’s parents or relatives and offer their firm’s services. Then you have the freelance brokers who don’t work for any one law firm. They track down the big cases, sign up prospective clients, and shop them around to the right attorneys. They get a huge percentage of the attorney’s fees in return.” Runners, he said, often rely on a network of EMTs, tow truck drivers, funeral home directors, bail bondsmen, police contacts, courthouse employees, and hospital staffers who dispense valuable information about accidents and their victims in exchange for kickbacks. A “good case”—that is, a case that has a defendant with deep pockets and potentially substantial damages—can net a runner a six-figure payday, sometimes more.

In the Coastal Bend, case running is not a recent phenomenon. Bill Edwards, a prominent figure in South Texas legal circles—he fought to desegregate Corpus Christi’s schools and represented Texaco in the wake of its 1985 Pennzoil judgment—traces its advent to 1981, when the city’s public grain elevator suffered a devastating explosion, killing 9 people and injuring 25. “That’s when a lot of big money started changing hands,” he said. “When all you were dealing with was five-thousand-dollar attorney’s fees, there wasn’t enough to risk losing a law license over. When the fees went up, the case runners stepped in. Now fees can run into the millions, so the propensity for mischief is monstrous.” Edwards, who, at 78, has taken on the problem by filing suit against lawyers who he believes have acquired cases through improper solicitation, lamented the public toll that case running has taken in recent years. “People don’t realize how much money is at stake here or what a corrupting influence it has become,” he said. “It’s corrupting law enforcement; it’s corrupting the judiciary. Everyone is getting their mordida, their bite.”

Edwards is galled by the fact that case runners often prey on people when they are at their most vulnerable, routinely showing up in hospital rooms to talk to injured patients or family members who have lost a spouse or child. “They’re easy targets,” he said, explaining that runners may offer to pay funeral expenses and give victims’ families as much as $25,000 to $50,000 if they sign on with a particular attorney. His stance is not just a moral one; it’s also informed by his bottom line. “I had to start advertising a couple of years ago, after fifty years of practicing law, because so many cases were being hustled away by case runners,” he said.

Edwards is disappointed that the State Bar has not taken a more aggressive stance toward improper solicitation. “You can run drugs and not make as much money as these guys are making,” he said. “If a drug deal goes bad, you get killed. If you’re an attorney who uses case runners, what do you get? Nothing. I know of only one attorney in town, who’s now deceased, who got a public reprimand from the bar for failing to properly supervise his ‘nonlawyer employee.’ The process stinks.”

“Pretty good for a guy with just a high school degree, don’t you think?” said Valdez, grinning, as he thumbed through copies of Celis’s canceled checks one morning this spring at the Nueces County courthouse. The checks—attorney’s fees paid to Celis by Corpus Christi law firm Owen and Associates—were for staggering amounts: $100,020 one week, $80,000 the following week, $286,000 the next. All told, Celis earned more than $10 million in such fees from 2004 to 2007. Yet once he came under criminal investigation, Valdez explained, Celis tried to minimize his importance, casting himself as a bit player. “My participation in any client matter has been under the supervision of the responsible Texas attorney and in a limited capacity, such as investigator, translator, and cultural adviser,” Celis said in a sworn affidavit. “I do not offer legal advice.”

The actual details on Celis’s background are hazy. (Celis and his lawyer, Tony Canales, did not respond to interview requests.) “We know that he was born in Mexico, that he graduated from high school in Rockport, and that he joined the Navy,” recounted Valdez, who is now Corpus Christi’s city attorney. “After the Navy, he came to Corpus Christi and had a little air-conditioning company. He started meeting lawyers and working for them as an investigator. Within a couple of years he went from being an investigator to having ‘Licensed in Mexico’ on his business cards and letterhead. He found a loophole in the bar rules in Washington, D.C., that allows nonlawyers to partner with lawyers and form law firms. That’s allowed only in Washington, but he formed CGT with two lawyers in 2005 and opened an office here in Corpus Christi. From then on, he was ‘the lawyer from Mexico.’ Everyone knew him as ‘the lawyer from Mexico.’ He claimed to have a law degree, but of course he didn’t have one.” At trial, three attorneys who belonged to Celis’s firm testified under oath that they believed he was a licensed lawyer in Mexico. And yet, said Valdez, “He didn’t have a law license, didn’t have a law degree, didn’t have anything.”

Before founding CGT, Celis worked for other law firms, including Owen and Associates, where, according to evidence admitted at trial, he was skillful at bringing in business. “First, Celis would sign up a client,” explained Nichols. “He had access to a plane, so he would literally fly from Corpus Christi to wherever he had to go, in Texas or elsewhere, to meet with a family. He would get all the family members to sign a contract, and then the case would be referred to a law firm, whose lawyers would appear as counsel when the claim was filed. When the claim was resolved, ordinarily through an insurance settlement, the firm would deduct attorney’s fees—usually forty percent of the settlement—and split the proceeds with Owen and Associates and later CGT. Celis received fifty percent of that.” One firm that received such referrals was the Watts Law Firm, owned by San Antonio trial lawyer and onetime U.S. Senate hopeful Mikal Watts. In October 2007, while Celis was under criminal investigation, Watts pulled out of the Senate race, citing his desire to spend more time with his family and inviting speculation about whether his ties to Celis were to blame.

At his trial last February, Celis’s defense team argued that he was licensed to practice law in Mexico. “The defense presented witnesses who said that most Mexican citizens can practice certain kinds of law, which is absurd, because that would make nearly everyone in Mexico a lawyer,” Valdez said. The jury rejected that line of reasoning and convicted Celis on 14 of 22 counts of falsely holding himself out as a lawyer. During sentencing, prosecutors portrayed Celis as a brute who had flaunted a pistol during an argument with the owner of a local strip club he frequented; forced his way into a girlfriend’s apartment, hurling her phone against the wall when she tried to call 911; and flashed an expired reserve deputy’s badge in three different encounters with police. Still, the defense had the ultimate ace in the hole: the bishop of the Corpus Christi diocese, the Most Reverend Edmond Carmody, who testified as a character witness. Carmody told the jury of Celis’s good works, including his financial assistance for a boy who had needed a heart transplant. “When Carmody took the stand, I said to Eric, ‘We just lost the jury,’ ” recalled Valdez. Celis, who faced the possibility of ten years in prison, was sentenced to ten years’ probation and a $10,000 fine.

Now the district attorney’s office has a chance to try Celis once more, thanks to an unrelated episode in which, yet again, he pretended to be someone he was not: a police officer. The incident dates back to September 15, 2007, when Celis was entertaining a man and a woman late into the night at his home, in the upscale Kings Crossing neighborhood. Shortly after 4 a.m., the woman dashed, naked, out of Celis’s hot tub and ran to a local convenience store. Celis, dressed in a bathrobe, followed her in his car, telling the reporting police officers that he was a cop, flashing an expired reserve deputy’s badge, and demanding that the woman be released into his custody. When he was ordered to wait in his car, Celis dialed the chief of police, Bryan Smith, who took his call; Celis then handed his cell phone to an officer and said, “Your chief wants to speak to you.”

Impersonating a peace officer, a third-degree felony, is punishable by two to ten years in prison. But Celis’s upcoming trial is the least of his problems. He is still under indictment for money laundering and theft in Nueces County, related to his work at CGT; in Pecos County, he faces charges of “securing the execution of a document by deception”; and in Zapata County, he has been indicted for aggravated perjury, having falsely claimed under oath that he held a law degree in a suit he filed against a lawyer seeking $1 million in attorney’s fees. It’s a long fall from grace for a man who used to hobnob with some of South Texas’s biggest players. Yet he remains well connected enough that most Corpus Christi attorneys who were contacted for this article declined to comment. “A lot of money is generated by people like Mauricio Celis,” Valdez said. “People are reluctant to say anything that might risk them losing business.”

“The State Bar has not committed enough people or assets to what is an extremely difficult problem,” said Edwards. “And has the [Texas] Supreme Court’s Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee done anything about case runners or lawsuits that have been solicited improperly? No.” Meanwhile, he noted, the success of case running has begotten “megarunners,” or South Texas ambulance chasers who run cases all over the globe. “I had a guy come by here who called himself a case ‘verification facilitator,’ ” Edwards said, chuckling. “About six weeks later, one of my associates saw him on a return trip from Siberia, where he was running cases. He told him there were thirty-eight cases he made off of a plane crash over there.” Edwards grinned. “Incidentally, I would tell people these things five years ago and they’d think I’d just gotten goofy in my old age,” he said. “But my goofiness has been rewarded with truth. You can’t make this stuff up.”

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  • cookin128

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