Updated: An Indiana bankruptcy lawyer has been suspended for 30 days for ads that said he has been “screwing banks since 1992.”
The Indiana Supreme Court suspended the lawyer, Brent Welke of Indianapolis, in a Jan. 7 order (PDF) noted by the Legal Profession Blog.
Welke agreed to remove the “screwing banks” language from his ads for debtor bankruptcy services, along with statements that said, “Keep your property,” “Stop wage garnishments,” “Stop home foreclosure” and “Stop vehicle repossession.” The statements were on Welke’s website and in Yellow Pages ads.
Welke agreed that the statements violated an ethics rule regarding misleading communications about a lawyer’s services. The rule bars statements that omit facts necessary to make the statement as a whole not materially misleading.
Welke’s current website has a picture of a bulldog with the statement, “We love to take a bite out of a banker!”
Welke told the ABA Journal in an interview that he was defended by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which contended the ads were protected commercial speech. “Absolutely, I just don’t know what caused the fracas over the language,” Welke said.
Citing a dictionary definition, Welke said his reference to “screwing banks” uses a term derived from the use of thumbscrews in debtors’ prisons to torture people into paying debts. It doesn’t make sense to interpret the term in a prurient manner, he said, because you can’t have sex with a bank.
“The ad is not in poor taste and is certainly honest,” he said. After all, he said, when debt is unsecured, banks may recover only pennies or nickels on the dollar in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
Reading from the initial response he penned to the ethics inquiry, Welke said: “I take pride in screwing banks. I would hope that every debtor’s counsel would feel the same way.”
As for the other targeted statements, they are boilerplate language used in many ads by bankruptcy lawyers, he said. “They’re going to have to suspend every bankruptcy attorney in the state, because everybody’s got the same ad,” Welke said.
Disciplinary officials relied on a 2002 Indiana Supreme Court decision, In re Matter of Anonymous. The ad at issue in that attorney discipline case read: “Bankruptcy, but keep house & car.” The court found that the ad failed to state that a debtor in bankruptcy has only the possibility—but no guarantee—of keeping his house and car.
Welke said he was unaware of the case and it “apparently just lay there unenforced for years” until a lawyer in Vincennes complained about his ad. The case “should be considered an outlier” and its wisdom re-examined, Welke says.
Story updated at 2:45 p.m. to include comments from Welke.
Original ABA Journal Story