State now after crooked judge's lawyer -- col. 11/26/05
For nearly three years now, a crooked former judge in Cumberland County has been a lonely figure of controversy, drawing all the heat from investigators while his associates escaped attention.
But former Circuit Judge Robert Cochonour, now jailed on a civil contempt charge after being formally released from prison, finally has some company on the hot seat.
The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission last week filed a formal complaint against Toledo lawyer John Cutright, a key Cochonour aide who drafted wills for elderly women in which Cochonour financially benefited.
The three-count complaint against Cutright, a lawyer since 1967 and a part-time public defender in Cumberland County, alleges a variety of misdeeds, including having a conflict of interest among clients he represented, giving improper gifts of his services to Judge Cochonour and neglecting the legal affairs of a client.
Cutright, who has until Dec. 8 to respond to the ARDC complaint, faces potential disbarment.
Springfield lawyer William Moran, who represents Cutright, declined to comment on how he'll respond to the allegations.
"Quite frankly, we haven't really started working on that," he said.
Cutright also has been named as a defendant in civil litigation stemming from his dealings with Cochonour and alleged improprieties involving the multimillion-dollar estate of the late businessman Jay Hayden of Greenup. Cutright is represented in those matters by Champaign lawyer David Bailie.
The ARDC complaint against Cutright marks the first time that any public agency, either civil or criminal, has taken action against a Cochonour associate.
Representatives of the Illinois Attorney General's office have intimated they could file criminal charges against Cochonour's two brothers, Joe and Don, just as they did against Robert Cochonour, but have done nothing.
Federal prosecutors also have ignored a years-long spree of bizarre banking transactions and questionable transfers of huge sums of money from a variety of estates.
The ARDC acted after information was brought to its attention by Naperville lawyer Fred Roth, who is representing the Jay Hayden Foundation, the charitable organization to which Hayden left the bulk of his estate after his 1985 death. Most estate assets were siphoned off into Cochonour family oil, real estate and horse businesses.
Roth said he was pleased by the ARDC's action and hopes for more.
"From what I know, I believe the allegations against him are true and serious, and the consequences ought to be serious," he said.
One charge alleges Cutright improperly represented two clients at the same time, Ruth Cochonour, the mother of Robert Cochonour, and Martha Hayden, the mother of Jay Hayden.
Cutright was representing Ruth Cochonour in the estate of her husband, Clark Cochonour, while writing legal documents for Martha Hayden.
The complaint notes that Clark Cochonour and his three sons owed a $312,000 debt to Martha Hayden and that the matter was part of the Clark Cochonour estate. Cutright subsequently prepared a document for Martha Hayden, then in ill health and allegedly suffering from Alzheimer's disease, in which she forgave the $312,000 debt to the Cochonours.
Cutright also drafted a will for Martha Hayden in which she repeated her forgiveness of the debt.
The ARDC alleges that Cutright had a conflict of interest by representing both women, that he failed to meet his fiduciary obligation to look out for Martha Hayden's interests and that he never obtained any information regarding Martha Hayden's assets before preparing documents in which she forgave a $312,000 debt.
The second count of the Cutright complaint alleges that he prepared tax returns for Judge Cochonour for no charge, an action that constituted an improper gift to a judge. At the same time, Cutright routinely appeared before Cochonour in court .
Finally, the ARDC charged Cutright with neglecting the estate of Bessie Carpenter, who died in 1986. As of 2005, the ARDC charges, Cutright had not closed the estate or explained to estate representatives why he failed to act.
Interestingly enough, the estate of Clark Cochonour, who died in 1992, also remains open. Normally, estate matters are resolved within a couple years.
Cutright has been linked by News-Gazette reports to other legal matters benefiting Cochonour.
He drafted the new will of Jesse Boyd, an elderly woman in Casey, that left a substantial portion of her estate to Robert Cochonour. After Boyd's death at age 93 in June 1980, Cochonour, described as a neighbor of Boyd who paid her considerable attention, was one of three major beneficiaries. Cochonour's total take was nearly $145,000.
Cutright also drafted a new will for Ethel B. Williams, Robert Cochonour's aunt and his mother's sister. A lifelong California resident who was brought back to Casey by the Cochonour brothers after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Williams died at age 86 on Jan. 8, 1996, at her sister's home.
The new will Cutright drafted after Williams was returned to Casey dramatically changed the terms of her previous will. The new will called for the three Cochonour brothers to receive most of an estate valued at roughly $700,000 with small bequests to other nieces and nephews that ranged from $3,000 to $10,000 each, a substantial reduction from the equal shares they were to receive.
Bank records obtained by The News-Gazette indicated that before her death Cochonour transferred $40,000 from Ethel Williams' bank accounts to a secret account that he controlled under another name.
Cochonour's biggest take as a result of Cutright's legal work was the $312,000 belonging to Martha Hayden. Cochonour, who had no power of attorney for Martha Hayden, obtained the money by directing employees at the National Bank of Toledo to remove Martha Hayden's certificates of deposits from her safe deposit box, cash them and give him the proceeds. He and his brothers used the $312,000 to go toward a $1.8 million payment to settle a $7.9 million debt to the First City National Bank of Houston, a bank that later failed.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey<@>news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.