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Ex-Con Exposed – Had Posed as a Lawyer

by John E. Dannenberg

A former prisoner who posed as an attorney in at least 16 cases in ten federal courts since 2004 has admitted to a federal judge that he is not a lawyer and didn’t graduate from law school as he had claimed. The effect of his faux “legal representation” may provide the basis for overturned cases should his unsuccessful clients file appeals based on ineffective assistance of counsel.

Howard O. Kieffer, 53, of Santa Ana, California, and Duluth, Minnesota (he maintains a mail drop address in the former and lives in the latter) has a criminal record that includes a 1989 conviction for filing false tax returns – for which he served three years of a five-year federal sentence. He also had prior California state convictions for forgery and grand theft.

Following his release from prison in 1992, Kieffer gained respect in the legal community through deceit and misrepresentation; he was “known” as a capable attorney specializing in federal sentencing issues and post convictions. He worked with Federal Defense Associates (, where he served as executive director, and acted as a consultant for defense attorneys. He also maintained a highly respected Internet listserv, BOPWatch, which tracks federal prison-related issues and news.

But a July 1, 2008 investigative report by the Denver Post revealed that Kieffer had a rap sheet, did not attend the Antioch School of Law in Washington D.C., was not licensed to practice law anywhere in the United States, and was not a member of the American Bar Association or the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as he had claimed.

Soon after the Post article was published, Kieffer’s carefully built reputation fell apart. Upon questioning by North Dakota U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland, who demanded proof of Kieffer’s legal standing, Kieffer admitted he was a phony. Other federal judges have demanded that he prove his legal certification.

Kieffer had gained “approval” to practice pro hac vice in jurisdictions other than California by obtaining sponsorships from unsuspecting local attorneys who knew him from his presentations at various legal conferences. “He acted very lawyerly, so to speak,” said attorney Lynn Fant, who had sponsored Kieffer for admission to a federal court in Georgia.

Kieffer’s undoing came following his representation of Gwen Bergman in Colorado on murder-for-hire charges. Bergman found Kieffer through an Internet search; he charged her $50,000 and reportedly asked her mother to sign over her house as collateral.
Bergman was convicted and received a nine-year sentence; she is now seeking a mistrial based upon Kieffer’s fraudulent legal representation. Daniel Recht, a Denver defense attorney, opined that all of Kieffer’s clients have a basis to challenge their cases.

Kieffer faces federal charges in North Dakota that carry up to five years plus a $250,000 fine for each time he made false statements to the courts. He was released on $25,000 bond. See: United States v. Kieffer, U.S.D.C. (N.D. ND), Case No. 1:08-cr-00054-PAC.
California authorities are investigating him for possible state law violations, and he also faces at least one lawsuit – Gwen Bergman has sued, seeking damages and a return of the attorney fees she paid.

Kieffer was self-taught, having learned his legal skills perfecting his own appeal in 1992 in the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals while he was serving federal time. Since his release from prison he has been retained to handle cases (mostly federal sentence modifications) in Alabama, Minnesota, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and Colorado. He reportedly lost all of his cases.

Even so, if Kieffer is convicted of his many new offenses, he may lawfully represent himself – using his extensive courtroom experience – to seek a sentence reduction. The question is whether the federal courts will be sympathetic, given that he successfully duped them for years.

In November 2008, federal prosecutors sought to have Kieffer’s bond revoked, alleging he had violated conditions that prohibited him from representing himself as an attorney or legal consultant. “The ink was likely not yet dry before Howard Kieffer violated that condition,” stated the U.S. Attorney’s office, which claimed that Kieffer made “legal calls” to a federal prisoner in Kentucky and told a prison employee he was an attorney.

Rather than go to jail after the court found he had violated the terms of his release, Kieffer agreed to home confinement. He was also barred from accessing the Internet or using a cell phone, and agreed to take down the Federal Defense Associates website. He is scheduled to go to trial on January 6, 2009 on charges of mail fraud and making false statements.

He has retained counsel to represent him.

Sources: Denver Post, Associated Press

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