Debt Relief Industry Sued or Sanctioned

Bankruptcy Lawyer Still Guilty of Stupid Stuff

Thomas O’Connel Holstein provided bankruptcy services at his law firm, known as Lawline. In September 2005, he signed a consent petition with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission in which he acknowledged professional misconduct and agreed to an eighteen-month suspension of his law license, effective October 17, 2005. Despite the agreement and impending suspension, Holstein continued to accept clients throughout August and September of that year.

Several former clients testified that they called Lawline in September of that year, seeking legal representation in their bankruptcy proceedings. Holstein routinely answered the phone and advised the clients to come to the office for an in-person consultation. But the clients testified that they usually met only with Lisa Vega, a paralegal Holstein employed, who helped them fill out forms and accepted their fees. If they saw Holstein at all, it was only momentarily.

Vega testified that Holstein directed her to accept fees from the clients and file the bankruptcy petitions on their behalf. In addition, Vega said Holstein directed her to black out his name on the petitions and indicate that the clients were not represented by counsel and would proceed pro se. The petitions therefore represented to the court that the clients paid no legal fees. But because Lawline handled the filings, each of the clients testified that they arrived at their initial creditors’ meeting expecting Holstein to appear as their attorney. None of the clients was aware of the pro se status statements on his or her petition.

A grand jury indicted Holstein on nine counts of bank- ruptcy fraud, 18 U.S.C. § 157(1), and making false state- ments in a bankruptcy proceeding, 18 U.S.C. § 1519.

After a bench trial, Judge Grady found Holstein guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on all counts and sentenced him to one year and one day in prison. Specifically, the Judge found that Holstein solicited clients, accepted fees, and hid from the clients his impending suspension and consequent inability to complete the representation; misrepresented to the bankruptcy court that the debtors were unrepresented by counsel; and made the misrepresentations to conceal that he was practicing without a license.

Holstein appealed.

With no evidence in the record to cast doubt on the district court’s findings, Holstein’s appeal boils down to challenging the Judge determinations as to the credibility of the witnesses. Such a tactic is “doomed at the outset,” United States v. DeCorte, 851 F.2d 948, 952 (7th Cir. 1988). The Judge found the evidence “overwhelming” that Holstein directed Vega’s actions and that any inference that use of a Lawline check negated Holstein’s intent was “implausible . . . [and] had absolutely no bearing on Mr. Holstein’s frame of mind at the time these petitions were filed.” The Judge had the best opportunity to listen to the witnesses and make credibility determinations and we will not second-guess those findings here.

This decision was handed down on August 18, 2010 and the full document can be found here.


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Steve Rhode

Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here.

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