Accused of bilking an elderly client out of $1.4 million in gifts — including a home worth more than $500,000 — Tulsa attorney Jasen Elias faced the ultimate sanction from his peers in Oklahoma’s legal profession.
But instead of waiting to be disbarred, Elias, 43, surrendered his license following an investigation into ethical violations he allegedly committed involving client Elizabeth Stambaugh, now 93.
Elias resigned in March after the Oklahoma Bar Association’s office of general counsel filed a formal complaint against him with the Supreme Court for allegedly engaging in egregious professional improprieties. Among the allegations in the 13-page document is that Elias accepted gifts and loans from his client, Stambaugh, over the course of eight years he served as her attorney.
Though hundreds of grievances are filed each year against attorneys in Oklahoma, Elias is one of only a handful who received the ultimate penalty.
During the past seven years in Oklahoma, the licenses of 64 attorneys have been revoked or surrendered, an investigation by The Frontier found. The high point during that time period was 2008, when 14 attorneys were disbarred.
An analysis of reports by the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Professional Responsibility Commission found that from 2008 to 2014, just over 10,000 informal grievances were filed against the OBA’s membership of about 17,000 people.
Of those grievances, the general counsel’s investigated just over 1,900, and nearly half of those cases stemmed from client neglect. The association’s general counsel is responsible for investigating whether a grievance has merit.
A recommendation to disbar an attorney is the apex of the general counsel’s power. Though the organization works with law enforcement, it cannot file criminal charges against an attorney.
According to the 2014 annual report, 40 percent of all grievances were filed against attorneys with 26 years or more experience. Many of those grievances stem from client neglect.
Data show Elias’ case is the exception, not the rule. The allegations in his misconduct case weren’t of client neglect, but of willful misleading, lying and fraud.
Out of 100 formal grievances filed against Oklahoma attorneys last year, about one-third involved neglect of clients’ cases, followed by behavioral misconduct and misrepresentation, The Frontier’s review found.
“We believe that, if you’re going to practice law,” said OBA general counsel Gina Hendryx, “the first rule is you ought to uphold the law.”
According to court documents, Elias, who previously went by the name Jasen Corns and legally changed his name to Jasen Elias, accepted over $1.4 million for himself and his children from Stambaugh.
Court filings allege he used that money to buy tickets to the 2012 Ryder Cup, pay Federal Tax Relief, pay off his student loans, pay off a mortgage on his house and purchase another house worth more than $500,000.
After Corns told Stambaugh that neighbors had stolen items from his garage, she transferred more than half a million dollars to the Jasen R. Corns Living Trust to buy a house for Elias on March 12, 2009, the complaint states.
One month later, Elias purchased a 4,537-square-foot home for $579,000, Tulsa County property records show.
Stambaugh also showed her fondness for Elias by buying a hot tub and “Turkish swim trunks” for him to use at her home after he complained to her about his back pain.
When reached by phone by The Frontier, Elias declined comment for this story. In court filings, he has denied that he took advantage of Stambaugh.
Stambaugh and her relatives did not return calls seeking comment.
Early success, then trouble
Elias was a newspaper reporter before he enrolled at the University of Tulsa College of Law in 2001 where he proved himself to be a more than capable student. He won TU’s civil, criminal and appellate trial competitions and was distinguished as the law school’s outstanding trial advocate for two of his three years.
By the time he graduated in May 2004, he’d been selected into the Order of the Barristers — an honor society focused on oral advocacy and brief writing — and picked up TU law’s CALI award, which recognizes the highest-scoring student in each law school class.
Such accomplishments earned him a federal judicial internship with Hon. Dana L. Rasure. Internships and a job at prominent Tulsa law firms followed.
Just two years after his graduation, he became of a member of the University of Tulsa Board of Directors. During that same year, he was named to both the Tulsa County Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Executive Committee and the Oklahoma Bar Association Young Lawyers Committee.
In January 2007, Elias opened his own law firm, Jenks Law. But at times, Corns has found himself on the other side of the law.
Around 2 a.m. in June 2009, a police officer walked up to Elias’ driver’s side window while the car was running. The officer reported smelling alcohol coming from inside the vehicle parked in the 4100 block of Riverside Drive.
When the officer allegedly shined a flashlight into Elias’ Land Rover, he saw a woman raise her head from Elias’ lap, according to police reports.
When the officer asked Elias for identification, Elias refused and said he “represents you guys” and was an “F.O.P. attorney.” He later failed a field sobriety test, records show.
No charges were filed against him stemming from this arrest.
Elias also had trouble in civil court. On Aug. 9, 2010, Stambaugh removed Elias as a beneficiary of her trust. It was one of several occasions where she removed him only to make him a beneficiary again later.
The next month she filed a lawsuit in Tulsa County District Court alleging Elias persuaded her to make gifts and loans to him of at least $1.4 million. Elias denied the allegations.
In court filings, he claimed Stambaugh “is admittedly a demanding client.”
“She has telephoned Mr. Corns on more than 10,000 separate occasions and has demanded hundreds of in-person meetings to discuss her various needs, questions and concerns related to legal, property, employment, family, general and personal issues,” Corns states in a court pleading filed during a dispute over Stambaugh’s trust.
While the suit was still in court, Elias continued to communicate directly with Stambaugh, though she had an attorney, and tried to persuade her to dismiss the suit. The complaint filed against Elias by the OBA’s general counsel states he communicated with her during this period with cards and requests for forgiveness.
Stambaugh’s suit against Elias was dismissed after it was settled Feb. 16, 2011.
One week later, he hand-delivered a letter to Stambaugh informing her that she could employ him as her attorney again. Two days later, the two renewed their attorney-client relationship by contract.
That same year, Elias represented Amber Hilberling, convicted of murder in the death of her husband. Hilberling pushed her husband as they were arguing and he fell through the window of a downtown high-rise apartment building.
Attorney Clark Brewster is now handling Hilberling’s appeal of her 25 year sentence and claims she would be free now if he had had the case from the beginning.
“Well, I would’ve won, so it would’ve been a little different,” Brewster said. “I don’t mean to be totally over the top with confidence, but that case to me had a lot of defense issues that I don’t think maybe the jury had the opportunity to really appreciate.”
Days after his resignation was accepted by the Supreme Court, Elias posted a letter to friends and clients on his firm’s website — Jenks Law Firm — stating he was leaving the profession to pursue his dream of becoming an author. The letter states he “remained in ‘Good Standing’ with the Bar” throughout his law career.
Whether a law license is surrendered or revoked in such cases makes no difference to the state Supreme Court and the Bar Association. In both cases, attorneys have been disbarred and cannot practice. Attorneys may seek reinstatement after five years, which is at the discretion of the OBA and Supreme Court.
‘I’m nothing without this’
Attorney Gina Cowley made no such claim after she tendered her resignation to the Supreme Court.
During a recent interview, Cowley recalled the series of events that led to her surrendering her license in 2004 after a formal complaint was filed against her by the OBA’s general counsel.
Tears well up in her eyes and mascara streaks down her cheeks as she tells her story. Her hair hides the number tattooed on the base of her neck, her Oklahoma Bar Association member number: 18928.
She tries to explain her state of mind in the months before and after she could no longer call herself an attorney.
“Before,” Cowley says, “it’s who you are, and that’s what made what came after it so very difficult. You’re just like, ‘I’m nothing. I’m nothing without this.’ ”
Cowley, 48, got a late start in law school but has lived around the law in one way or another. As the daughter of a former prison warden, she’d seen the effects of the criminal justice system and the influence of attorneys in the system.
Shortly after graduating from Northeastern State University in 1990 with a degree in criminal justice, she started working as a secretary for attorney Paul Brunton. Later she became his legal assistant. After working for Brunton for nearly a decade, she began law school in 1998.
She was 30 years old, married with a 3-year-old daughter and three months pregnant in her first semester at University of Tulsa College of Law.
Cowley was undeterred by the challenges she faced, saying she “just went balls to the wall on it.”
After graduating in 2001, she immediately went to work as an attorney in the firm where she worked as a secretary only a few years before.
Later that year, Cowley caught an enormous break: Brunton was appointed Federal Public Defender of the Eastern and Northern districts of Oklahoma by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and he left his practice to Cowley.
Just a few months after passing the bar exam, Cowley inherited Brunton’s client list, the sum of his 27 years as a criminal defense attorney. Sometimes the work led her to make jailhouse visits long after her children were asleep. To get more hours out of her work day, she frequently started before 6 a.m.
She was finally able to do the job she’d wanted to do for most of her life, and Cowley wasn’t going to waste a moment. So she pushed the stress aside.
“If your character is such that you take your job home with you, you’re going to suffer,” Cowley says. “My issues were boundary issues and being able to say no.”
By the time she’d figured that out, though, it was too late. A formal complaint had been filed.
“It appears that she set extremely high standards, pushing herself far beyond what any one person could handle,” according to an order by the Supreme Court.
“Ms. Cowley reached an acute level of stress by 2004 when she began receiving notice of bar complaints. Rather than addressing the issues, Ms. Cowley testified that she put the complaints in a drawer and refused to deal with them.”
Rather than see the process out, Cowley asked if she could surrender her license to practice. She surrendered her license to the Supreme Court Oct 19, 2004, a month after her divorce was finalized.
Second chances, stronger proof
Like all attorneys who have been disbarred in Oklahoma, Cowley could not seek reinstatement for five years. She went to work as a research and writing assistant for attorney Tom Lane.
Cowley began the reinstatement process Feb. 22, 2011, when she filed for reinstatement and began searching for an attorney who could help her navigate the process.
One attorney she talked to said he would represent her but it would cost $45,000.
What little money she did have went toward supporting herself and her children. Cowley began scrolling through her list of attorney contacts and landed on Sheila Naifeh’s name.
They’d known each other for years, seeing each other in court regularly before Cowley’s disbarment, and became friends.
Cowley hadn’t spoken with Naifeh in some time when she called her.
“Will you help?” Cowley asked. “I don’t have $45,000.”
Before the hearing on her reinstatement, Cowley had to provide information including tax returns, proof of employment since being removed from the bar and letters of support.
According to Rule 11.4 of the Rules Governing Disciplinary Proceedings: “The burden of proof, by clear and convincing evidence, in all such reinstatement proceedings shall be on the applicant. An applicant seeking such reinstatement will be required to present stronger proof of qualifications than one seeking admission for the first time.”
The hearing lasted nearly seven hours but Cowley would have to wait much longer to find out if she regained her license. It would be nearly six months before she knew she had been reinstated as an attorney.
Today, Cowley runs a small criminal defense practice in Broken Arrow and feels as if she has been given a second chance to do the job she loves and help other lawyers. She’ll be a member of the OBA’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program in 2017.
One of Cowley’s former clients, Sam Bromell, hired Cowley just six months after her reinstatement. Bromell had no reservations about hiring Cowley her as his attorney.
“How it worked out, she was actually a godsend for me,” Bromell said. “She went and tackled my case and didn’t know me from Adam. I owe her a lot.”
As for Elias, he says on his website that he’s working on a novel — a legal thriller.