A Wilkes-Barre lawyer faces the possibility of state suspension for taking loans from a Dallas Township cemetery association for nine years without informing the organization that he was using the money.
But attorney Hopkin T. Rowlands Jr. says the state is wrong about the nature of the transactions, that he repaid all or nearly all of the money, and that the issue lies at the heart of a pending lawsuit he filed against the Fern Knoll Burial Park, also known as the Fern Knoll Cemetery Association.
“I took out loans, I repaid loans,” Rowlands told The Times Leader on Monday, saying he wrote checks back to the association for more than $80,000.
“The most, if there is any deficiency, is about $7,000,” Rowlands, 75, said.
The hearing committee of Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania earlier this month filed a report recommending that Rowlands be suspended for one year and one day for violating rules of professional conduct, after which he would be required to prove his fitness to practice under a reinstatement proceeding.
According to a hearing committee report, Rowlands served as Fern Knoll’s lawyer and president, and as such had access to the group’s bank accounts.
Two unsigned emails from the association received Monday read: “At this time, FKBP is not in a position to comment.” The second said: “We have a few more steps in this matter. When a final conclusion does come, Fern Knoll might have a prepared statement.”
The committee’s report indicates Rowlands never provided Fern Knoll with the opportunity to seek the advice of independent counsel, did not advise the group to seek such advice, and no written documentation or loan agreements were created for the loans. The report also says Rowlands never identified or offered any collateral, and never paid any interest or set a repayment schedule or any other loan terms.
Some of the loans were traced back to 2002, and continued until 2011, the report says.
Rowlands, who has practiced law since 1963, was never disciplined before this incident, the report says.
The board acknowledged Rowlands began taking the loans out of desperation as personal financial problems mounted due to his wife’s worsening multiple sclerosis. But it also said Rowlands has not shown any remorse, even suggesting he argued that the borrowings occurred at a time when Fern Knoll was “cash rich,” and the loans were taken out in good faith.
Rowlands acknowledged his wife’s health was a factor in taking the loans, and he took out a mortgage on his home to repay the loans.
Rowlands also said the committee has the wrong numbers, and misinterpreted the transactions; he said he was owed back fees by the association for his many years of work.
According to a lawsuit, Rowlands filed against the association in Luzerne County Court in 2012, Rowlands states he was underpaid by nearly $72,000 for his services, in which he was effectively running the association.
While Rowlands declined to comment on his suit, which appeared to remain outstanding according to court records, he also said he had “nobody I could tell” regarding the loans.
“Ample evidence shows (Rowlands) improperly tries to characterize his misconduct as a ‘fee dispute,’ ” the committee report says.
The hearing committee’s recommendations must be considered by the full disciplinary board, which would then make a recommendation to the state Supreme Court. Only once the court has made a ruling would any disciplinary action take effect.
Officials said the full board may consider the matter at a meeting next month.