Hilton Head council candidate disbarred in '94, reprimanded in '09

tbarton@islandpacket.comAugust 15, 2012 

Charles Houston

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A candidate for Hilton Head Town Council was disbarred for ethical violations, including misappropriation of client funds, by the S.C. Supreme Court in 1994 and also was reprimanded by the court in 2009.

Island attorney Charles E. Houston Jr. of The Houston Law Firm filed Tuesday to run in the November general election for the Ward 1 council seat held by Bill Ferguson.

"I was practicing law in a loose and sloppy manner, but the disbarment turned into a blessing in disguise, pushing me to divinity school and has turned me into a stronger lawyer," Houston, 71, said Wednesday. "It's an unfortunate aspect of my career. I've corrected those mistakes and moved on.

"And my reinstatement should signal to voters my fortitude and determination."

An investigation by a disciplinary panel found Houston took settlement money from one case to pay past-due alimony, money he repaid using payments from other clients, according to court records.

Houston was jailed twice on bench warrants for failure to pay alimony to his first wife, according to the court.

The court also found Houston failed to disclose a conflict of interest before accepting a loan from a client, failed to pay a University of South Carolina psychology professor hired as an expert, bounced checks, overdrew client accounts, failed to keep adequate records and did not "zealously represent his clients."

"On the present facts, Houston has failed to comply with even the most basic ethical requirements of his profession," the court said. "The allegations and findings cover an extended period of time, and while Houston argues that the board was 'stockpiling' complaints, the sheer number and variety of complaints indicate a long-term patter of ethical non-compliance."

Houston said he had left in 1991 to attend divinity school at Boston University and was unable to appear before the court to defend himself.

After undergoing stricter scrutiny, including screening by a the Committee on Character and Fitness, Houston was reinstated to the state bar in 2000, on the condition he be supervised by another attorney for a year.

He was reprimanded by the court in April 2009 for failure to keep proper records following an investigation prompted by an anonymous tip.

The court said a reprimand was warranted given Houston's disciplinary history. It noted, however, that no clients complained and that none of their money was lost, accounts overdrawn or funds misappropriated. Houston, as well, hired a certified public accountant to manage client accounts before the court's reprimand, according to records.

"None of us are perfect," Houston said. "I made some past mistakes. I don't want them to be a stumbling block to what I can contribute to my community. ... This thing is in my past. I'm still a good lawyer and communicator and have the skills to carry out the platform I have set forth."

He faces the incumbent, Bill Ferguson, 64, and fellow native-islander Marc Grant, 42, owner of Grant's Mini Mart on Hilton Head.

Ferguson declined Wednesday to comment on Houston's disbarment and court reprimand. An attempt Wednesday to reach Grant was unsuccessful.

Ferguson, the island's longest-serving council members, has represented Ward 1 since 1993. His health temporarily kept him from council work last year and he was chided for public outbursts and a domestic-violence charge to which he pleaded guilty.

Related content

  1. Native islander, attorney to run for Hilton Head ward 1 seat: Aug. 14, 2012
  2. Ferguson to face challenger, Heitzke will not run in Hilton Head council election: Aug. 7, 2012

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