Canon fodder

Attorney-politico Walkin' Will trips over the state bar.

"I never practiced law in the conventional sense anyway," says ex-state legislator "Walkin' Will" Knedlik. So getting disbarred from private practice is no big deal to the controversial Kirkland tax attorney. Still, he insists he was wrongly accused of violating bar canons. In addition, he contends his home was broken into by the Together Group, a dating service, whose complaint led to his legal defrocking.

The Together Group "saw me as just some pissant lawyer from Seattle who came along and made trouble for them," says Knedlik, an attorney for 26 years, "so they filed a bar claim against me."

Though it was not publicized, the former state lawmaker (remembered in Olympia for, among other things, throwing a cup of coffee at fellow legislator Rod Chandler) was disbarred in January by the State Supreme Court. Upholding a state bar finding, the court agreed Knedlik filed frivolous claims, used litigation to embarrass other parties, and failed to diligently represent a client.

"This is a case where my adversary and not my clients filed the claim," Knedlik says. "What's that tell you?"

If he's feeling wronged, he's got plenty of legal company to commiserate with: The Washington State Bar Association and the high court have taken serious disciplinary action against 10 attorneys in five months, including several high-profile Seattle-area lawyers. From December to April, five were disbarred and five suspended on complaints involving ethics and criminal violations. Besides Knedlik, other prominent cases include:

Lowell Halverson, former state bar president, suspended one year for having sexual relations with a client (he admitted to having relations earlier with five other clients). His case led to a new rule established by the Supreme Court that in effect says, in the words of Justice Charles W. Johnson, "You can be a lawyer or a lover, but you can't be both."

Leslie Clay Terry III of Bellevue, resuspended 18 months for practicing law while his license was suspended in 1997. He recently represented Rose Marie Williams, the former Miss Washington who pled guilty to prostitution.

Those, like Knedlik, who have been disbarred can reapply for their licenses after five years, says Judy Berrett, state bar communications director. "But that's quite rare." Berrett notes that disciplinary actions affect only a tiny percentage of the bar's 18,500 active members. Forty-eight Washington lawyers were disciplined last year, for example, and 11 of them disbarred (in recent years, that figure ranged from four disbarred in 1995 to 15 in 1998).

One of the exceptions that proves the rule, Knedlik joined the bar about the same time he began representing the Eastside's 45th District as Democratic state representative in 1976. In the 1980s and early '90s he ran losing campaigns for the state Senate, King County assessor, and lieutenant governor—a campaign in which he earned his "Walkin' Will" nickname by walking across the state in a publicity stunt. (He claimed to have walked 1,633 miles, losing 50 pounds as well as the race; later, to revive the name during a failed run for Congress, he attempted to walk across Lake Washington—on floating shoes. As The Seattle Times reported, "He sank, literally and electorally.")

In recent years, Knedlik specialized in suing dating services—his main target being the Together Group corporation—and gained something of a national reputation via a Dateline NBC report on dating service fraud. The New York Times recently quoted him on the advantages of Internet-based matchmaking compared to traditional dating services. "The cost is so much less and the transaction time is shorter," he said. Apparently even traditional matchmaker Together is taking his advice. The corporation was last month sold for $17 million to new investors who plan to expand its online presence.

According to bar and Supreme Court files, Knedlik violated several bar rules in the lengthy dispute with Together under its previous owners, launching 22 lawsuits against the corporation or its related entities in Washington state courts (one complaint was 300 pages long and was dismissed by the federal court). Though Knedlik was prohibited by the court from filing more suits, he persisted and a judge imposed fees and fines of almost $90,000 against him.

Enjoined from attending one Together franchisee meeting, Knedlik showed up at a different one, and later swore out a criminal complaint alleging a Together official assaulted him and broke one of his front teeth, the bar says. The Together officer was arrested and the case set for trial, at which Knedlik did not appear. Knedlik later admitted he broke his tooth playing tennis.

In violations unrelated to Together, the bar found Knedlik failed to properly represent a client in one case and, in another— involving a ballet studio he ran—alleged that a rival ballet group constituted a "racketeering enterprise," a complaint the bar said had no basis in fact.

"This was not a [disbarment] case where money was involved," Knedlik says in his defense, "and not a case where I was sleeping with a client. Very vulnerable people who couldn't get any legal representation came to me, and we all got stepped on."

Knedlik also had evidence, he claimed, that his opponents "hired someone to break into my house" and steal documents. Records show the claim was unproved.

Without a shingle to hang out, does Walkin' Will now have the leisure time to run for public office again, as, say, Whilin' Will? License or no license, he says, "I'm just too busy."

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