BELLINGHAM - A Bellingham lawyer has been disbarred for pressuring an elderly client to give him $10,000 so he could pay off his overdue real estate taxes.
Peter Dirk Nansen, a member of the Washington State Bar Association for three decades, had been hired in 2007 to oversee the finances of an 80-year-old retired dairy farmer from Lynden. Her husband had died in the '90s. In the years that followed, her son-in-law had "borrowed" $132,000 from her to pay for a house. Neighbors claimed in court filings she'd been manipulated into lending the money. She'd been named a vulnerable adult in Whatcom County Superior Court.
So Nansen - whose letterheads proclaimed expertise in "Wealth Preservation Strategies" - had been called upon to help the woman's regular attorney, James Dolan, in ensuring the rest of the family didn't take advantage of her.
On April 14, 2009, Nansen met with the woman at a nursing home, alone, to talk about the pending sale of her 160-acre farm. During their 40-minute conversation he said he needed $10,000 to pay off his own real estate taxes that were three years overdue. And he needed the money by the end of the month, so the land wouldn't be foreclosed.
She reluctantly agreed to give him an advance on future fees, according to the bar association. She signed the check and wrote "advance" on the memo line. But weeks later Nansen told Dolan it had been a $10,000 "bonus," because he had raised the sale price of the farm from $1.3 million to $2.3 million by finding a few competing bids.
Most lawyers or a real estate agent, Nansen said, would have taken a much larger cut. To this day he maintains it had been a bonus, and that the client later changed her mind and wanted her money back.
"They make me out like I'm some bad guy taking advantage of little old ladies," Nansen told a reporter Friday, June 13. "Really, the opposite's true. I'm working for her benefit."
He put the money in his personal checking account, rather than a separate client trust account. Once Dolan learned Nansen had not been forthright about the "bonus," he wrote a letter demanding Nansen to no longer communicate with the client unless he got approval from Dolan.
Before the end of the summer, Nansen sent the client a letter - without telling Dolan - promising to refund some fees she'd paid in advance. In the same letter he pitched an investment opportunity, with the potential to essentially double her money every couple of years.
According to the state bar, over the next four years Nansen made no effort to pay back the $10,000. This week he said he'd made an agreement to pay her back once he could sell some property he owned. The agreement had never been made in writing. It finally sold at the end of last year, he said.
The state bar labeled Nansen's account of the incident as "incredible and fictionalized," and in "direct opposition of the credible version of events." He was found unfit to be a lawyer and disbarred effective June 12. As part of the ruling, he has to repay $10,000 to the elderly woman.
Nansen had been reprimanded, but not suspended, by the state's bar association in 2012 for ethical breaches in two cases:
- One of his clients had been seeking guardianship over her boyfriend. Nansen knew the boyfriend had a lawyer, too, but he spoke with the man outside of the lawyer's presence 11 times, a violation of legal ethics. Nansen convinced him he was "trying to help him," according to the state bar. The man signed papers to irrevocably transfer his property into a trust for the girlfriend, without having a chance to consult his own lawyer.
- A client gave Nansen $10,000 to put in a trust account, basically an advance for future fees. But before Nansen had earned the money, he transferred it into his personal account.
Nansen said he hasn't been practicing law full time for several years. He's listed as a yacht broker for Waterline Boats, LLC.