Appeals court upholds phony lawyer’s conviction

James MacPherson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

BISMARCK, N.D. – A federal court rejected the appeal of a Minnesota man convicted of impersonating a lawyer in North Dakota, saying in a ruling Monday that he misled federal courts across the country – including in the trial of an Aspen woman – into admitting him to practice law.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld the conviction and prison sentence for Howard O. Kieffer, 55, of Duluth, Minn. The court said he never obtained a college degree, attended law school or passed a bar exam.

“Kieffer is a felon with a history of dishonesty, including convictions for petty and grand theft, passing bad checks, and stealing cable TV,” the appeals court opinion said.

In May 2008, he represented Gwen Bergman, an Aspen woman on trial for attempting to have her son’s father killed, The Denver Post recently reported.

After she was convicted, Bergman appealed, citing ineffective assistance of counsel.

“Because Kieffer tried the case with another lawyer who was licensed, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction,” the paper reported. “However, the circuit judges decided that because Kieffer alone represented Bergman during a pretrial competency hearing, the lower court must review whether she was competent to go forward with her trial at that time.”

Stephen Bergman testified he and his mother paid Kieffer $65,700 to represent his sister, the Post reported.

Authorities had said Kieffer lied on his application to practice law in federal court and worked on federal cases in at least 10 states.

Kieffer was charged in North Dakota in 2008 after one of his clients, a man accused of child pornography, wrote to a federal judge in Bismarck, raising questions about whether Kieffer had ever been a licensed attorney.

A Bismarck jury convicted Kieffer last year on charges of mail fraud and false statements. He was sentenced to four years and three months in prison and ordered to repay $152,750 to clients.

Kieffer’s clients included a former St. Louis Blues hockey player who pleaded guilty to plotting to kill his agent.

In the Bergman case, Kieffer was found guilty by a Denver jury in April of fraud and making false statements. He was sentenced last month to an additional four years and nine months in prison and has appealed that conviction to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Court records show Kieffer was convicted of theft and filing false tax returns and served time in a federal prison from 1989 to 1992.

At Kieffer’s trial in Bismarck, attorneys testified that they thought Kieffer was a colleague because he seemed to know about federal court matters and because they saw him at attorney training seminars.

“Kieffer’s fraud exposed systemic weaknesses in the attorney admissions systems of some federal courts,” the appeals court said in its opinion.

Kieffer is serving his sentence at the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp in Duluth.