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.
The Great Pretender
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

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