Bright Lights, Big Suspension

Mark McClain was a rising star who became a tarnished lawyer.

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In early 1990, when Cleveland Mayor Michael White unveiled his first cabinet, the announcement was greeted with the sort of slavering praise normally reserved for eulogies and movie advertisements. The Citizens League called it an "all-star" cast. The Plain Dealer cooed.

Among the mosh of political loyalists, bureaucratic lifers, and young newcomers who would run City Hall, no one seemed to capture the promise of the administration more than City Prosecutor Mark McClain.

The résumé of the former assistant U.S. attorney read like a map to the ranks of the Best and Brightest. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard, and Columbia, he had returned to Cleveland in the early 1980s to clerk for federal Judge William K. Thomas before moving on to work in private practice and for the feds. White called him "a man with great integrity and a strong sense of justice." The Plain Dealer labeled him a "working model of a rising star."

"He was a seasoned litigator and a fearless advocate on behalf of his clients," defense attorney John Martin recently wrote on McClain's behalf. "He enjoyed a superb reputation throughout the legal community."

Yet 12 years later, McClain's career has become a working model of a flaming wreck. Last month, the Ohio Supreme Court cited him for six violations of the code of professional conduct and suspended his law license indefinitely. The charges include neglecting legal matters and failing to reimburse at least two clients. In short: The court ruled that McClain ripped people off.

"When I first saw the publication of Mark's suspension," Irene Keyes-Walker, an attorney at Arter & Hadden, wrote the court, "I honestly believed that it had to be someone else."

She is hardly alone. Dapper, soft-spoken, and conspicuously polite, McClain tends to live in friends' descriptions as a cross between Perry Mason and Gandhi, the last person they expected to find trouble. As city prosecutor, he gained notoriety for clashing with Municipal Court Judge Edward F. Katalinas, who once ordered McClain to reduce charges against a man accused of assaulting three policemen. McClain refused, choosing to go to jail rather than follow a directive he believed was wrong.

His career continued to zoom after he left White in 1991. He became a competent civil rights attorney, did a stint as East Cleveland city prosecutor, and headed up the NAACP's legal redress committee. He and his wife also operated a Pizza Hut franchise on the East Side. "If he told me something, I knew it was money in the bank," says Stanley Tolliver, a defense attorney. "All I needed was his word. He was one of my boys."

Echoes attorney Andy Petropouleas: "He was the kind of guy who wanted to fight for his clients -- not at all the kind of person who would rip someone off intentionally."

The schism between that reputation and reality began to show three years ago, when McClain agreed to represent Eric Robinson. A week after their initial meeting, McClain told Robinson that the case (a civil matter that was never filed) would cost $3,500 -- $1,000 more than he first indicated. Robinson decided to find another attorney and asked McClain to return a $1,000 payment he had made. McClain refused, arguing that he had already done some work on the case. Four months later, Robinson filed a complaint with the Cleveland Bar Association.

The association's probe uncovered another beef concerning McClain. Six years before, in 1993, Carolyn Ray hired him to sue the Cleveland Board of Education on behalf of her children. After becoming Ray's attorney, McClain voluntarily dismissed the case without telling Ray. When he tried to refile, however, the one-year deadline for resubmitting the suit had passed, and a judge threw the matter out. When Ray finally learned what had happened, in April 1995, she demanded McClain return her $1,000 retainer. McClain refused.

McClain's conduct wasn't going to win him any awards from the Better Business Bureau. But it also wasn't the kind of abuse that usually translated into an automatic suspension. Had McClain responded to the charges, say attorneys, he would have likely kept his license. He was, after all, a respected lawyer in a profession notorious for protecting its own. "If anybody ever deserves an opportunity to correct missteps," a former colleague would later write to the Supreme Court, "I believe that Mark should be eligible."

But rather than explain himself, McClain chose to ignore the whole mess. For almost three years, he disregarded repeated attempts by the bar association and the state to get his version of the Robinson and Ray cases -- a move both diplomatically dim and in clear violation of the code of professional responsibility. Only once, after the bar association informed him of its intent to file a formal complaint, did McClain respond. On August 28, 2000, he wrote a letter blaming many of the problems in the Ray suit on miscommunication with Leslie Y. Spencer, an attorney who was also working on the case. (Attempts to contact Spencer were unsuccessful.) He also informed the association that he had been diagnosed with depression.

Months before, McClain began to notice how little energy he had at work, according to an affidavit he would eventually file. He couldn't concentrate and had difficulty interacting with colleagues. His friends noticed. "He seemed withdrawn and then just kind of disappeared for a while," says one attorney.

After contacting the bar association in February 2000 to seek advice, McClain was referred to psychologist Donald Jay Weinstein, who diagnosed him with depression -- a condition that may have been brought on by his blood-pressure medication. But more than a year later, after changing his medicine and undergoing therapy, McClain still didn't feel that his depression was under control. So in February 2002, he contacted the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program -- a substance and mental health referral service -- which sent him to the psychiatry department of the Cleveland Clinic. In March, he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and began receiving treatment.

"I am finally at a point in my treatment for my depression that I have the energy and concentration to attend to this matter and retain counsel to assist me in this disciplinary case," he wrote in his affidavit on June 13, a week after the Supreme Court suspended his license and ordered him to reimburse Ray and Robinson. (McClain declined to discuss the case with Scene.)

He may yet get his chance to argue his case. His attorney, Mary L. Cibella, recently asked the court to reconsider the suspension, arguing that McClain is remorseful and should be allowed to present evidence about how his depression figured in his conduct.

A good chunk of Cleveland's legal community has rallied behind him. Several prominent attorneys -- including Gordon Friedman, Roger Synenberg, and two assistant U.S. attorneys -- have urged the Supreme Court to give McClain another chance. "I consider him to be a leader and a role model in the legal community of Cleveland," wrote Friedman.

Not surprisingly, others aren't so eager to forgive. As attorneys for the Cleveland Bar Association have pointed out, McClain has never disputed the factual basis for the complaints. The latest motion only explains McClain's refusal to cooperate with the disciplinary process -- not his conduct in the Robinson and Ray cases.

"The motion for reconsideration is notable for what [McClain] declines to address," wrote bar association lawyers Alan Petrov and Charles Bowers, in their response to McClain's latest petition. "We are of the view that [McClain's] efforts . . . are far too little arriving much too late." Sometimes even stars, it seems, run out of sky.

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