OGDEN — As Bob and Jean Tonioli were returning from a Baltic vacation in 2011, Bob became ill and died in a New York City hospital.
Three years later, Jean Tonioli won a nearly $380,000 wrongful-death settlement against Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, maker of the blood thinner Pradaxa, which she said caused a fatal complication for her husband.
However, Tonioli, a school teacher who lives in Roy, did not receive her share of the settlement, about $254,000, at that time.
Now, her former personal injury attorney, Richard H. Reeve of Ogden, is on trial in 2nd District Court on ethics charges that accuse him of spending thousands of dollars of Tonioli’s money on personal expenses, including vacations and a vehicle.
In a bench trial before 2nd District Judge Noel Hyde, Tonioli testified Thursday she was shopping in a hardware store in September 2015 when she got a call from an executive with Smith Knowles, an Ogden law firm where Reeve worked.
That lawyer asked if she had received any money from the settlement.
“I said no, not at all, I hadn’t received anything,” Tonioli said.
The executive told her Reeve had been fired from the firm and they were looking into details of the settlement.
Barbara Townsend, a lawyer representing the Office of Professional Conduct with the Utah State Bar, questioned Reeve, Tonioli and other witnesses Wednesday and Thursday, the first two days of the trial.
The trial is expected to conclude Monday. At the end, Hyde will either dismiss the case or find that misconduct occurred.
If there is a subsequent penalty phase, possible penalties range from an admonition to disbarment.
The complaint, filed by Townsend for the OPC in 2017, accuses Reeve of three counts of violating professional conduct rules regarding the safekeeping of property, one count of improperly agreeing to share attorney’s fees with a non-lawyer and one count of misconduct.
The rule says misconduct occurs when a lawyer engages in conduct “involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
Normally, settlement funds are deposited in a law firm’s trust account, pending payment to the client.
The OPC complaint said Reeve had resolved the case in July 2014 and received a check for the $380,000 settlement on Feb. 5, 2015.
Reeve’s former paralegal, Edela Irvin, testified that Reeve insisted that she arrange for the check from the settlement to be paid to him, not the trust fund for the law firm where they worked then, Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall and McCarthy.
Reeve deposited the check in his personal credit union account in Ogden, according to testimony.
During the next six months, Townsend said while questioning Reeve on Thursday, the deposited sum was almost completely drained from Reeve’s account.
She quizzed him about various expenses during that time, including a vehicle purchase.
“You don’t recall that amount was made out to Larry H. Miller?” Townsend asked.
“I don’t recall specifically what it was for,” Reeve said.
Reeve said he was going through a divorce at the time and his wife still had access to the account.
“Are you telling the court you put Ms. Tonioli’s money into an account that other people had access to?” Townsend asked him.
He said his wife made withdrawals of $56,000 and $30,000.
Of withdrawals and expenses in that six-month period, Reeve said. “There are some I made. The majority were attributable to her.”
Townsend noted a trip to San Antonio, although Reeve did not admit to those expenses.
She listed a Las Vegas wedding chapel fee, a luxury wedding chapel fee in another city, and a wedding ring purchase.
Reeve said he did not remember making any such purchases.
“You don’t recall whether you bought a wedding ring or got married?” she asked.
“I definitely did not get married in that time frame,” he said.
Under further questioning, Reeve admitted he had gone to Las Vegas and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and taken an ocean cruise that summer.
Irvin and Tonioli testified that Tonioli inquired about the settlement several times during 2015 and that Reeve said the settlement funds were not available because phase two of the settlement process had not been resolved.
Reeve and Irvin moved to Smith Knowles in Ogden after Van Cott closed its Ogden office.
Irvin testified she also noted possible improprieties involving two other settlements of Reeve’s cases. She went to David Knowles and Dana Farmer with her concerns and they met with Reeve on Sept. 16.
They said Reeve told them Tonioli’s money was at Van Cott and that Tonioli had authorized the money be kept there.
But they further investigated, confronted Reeve again, fired him and Farmer wrote a letter to the OPC outlining “substantial ethical violations” by Reeve.
Reeve testified that he then sold his shares in a limited liability company he co-owned with his brother and soon deposited $167,000 in his credit union so he could pay Tonioli.
He acknowledged lying to Knowles and Farmer.
“Which is something I regret and wish I had done differently,” Reeve testified. “I think I panicked in the moment.”
“As late as August 1st you still had not told (Tonioli) about the settlement and had not given her any money,” Townsend said to Reeve, adding that he did not prepare to pay her until he was confronted and fired.
“I was not forthright,” he said. Reeve said Tonioli was “disappointed and I was disappointed in myself as well.”
During the Thursday afternoon phase, Reeve took the stand to present his defense.
He said he was testifying “primarily to provide context. I acknowledge my errors in judgment and deep regrets” about circumstances “that have impacted so many — my law partners, my legal assistant and, most importantly, Ms. Tonioli.”
He said he was under a confluence of pressures in 2015: his mentor at Van Cott had cancer and Reeve had to absorb his workload; Van Cott was closing its Ogden office, so he had to find a new firm or start his own; and his marriage was ending.
“I was operating under an extreme degree of stress, I was depressed and I was not thinking clearly,” he said.
During his cross-examinations of Tonioli and Irvin, they were not sympathetic.
“I didn’t trust you because I already knew what you were doing,” Irvin told Reeve. “I was disappointed by the whole finding out what your character was.”
Tonioli said she was skeptical when Reeve told her after the truth came out that he would pay her the settlement.
“I was a school teacher and a widow and that money would be very helpful for retirement,” she said. “I felt like it was a breach of trust, not to mention the loss of money.”
She said she was “naive and shocked and I just hoped the money was there.”
Tonioli said she was reluctant to sign a document Reeve presented to her about what had happened.
“They were his words and not mine,” she said.
The checks did clear, she said.
In the trial, Reeve asked her to confirm that she received the settlement funds.
“Assuming you gave me the full amount, which you say you did, I would say yes,” she answered.
Of the $380,000 settlement, Reeve received one third as a contingency fee, about $126,000.