Richmond real estate and immigration lawyer Hong Guo has once again been found to have committed professional misconduct.
The Law Society of BC says Guo is suspended for one month, starting Feb. 1, after a disciplinary panel found she had committed professional misconduct by failing to ensure clients’ advance payments were deposited into a trust account, and by breaching an interim order that prohibited her from handling trust funds in the first place.
The Law Society had asked the panel to suspend Guo for four months and place restrictions on her practice for three years, including that she practise law only as an employee of a law firm approved by the governing body’s executive director and not handle or be able to authorize any trust transactions, and not be responsible for any bookkeeping or maintaining financial records.
However, the panel decided to impose a one-month suspension after considering Guo’s “professional misconduct history” and mitigating factors, including the “modest amount” of the trust funds, which totalled $2,740.
The panel also noted in its decision that Guo has been under “significant practice conditions” since 2017, which ban her from operating a trust account and require her to practise under supervision for at least another year.
Guo, meanwhile, said that the “gravity of her offence” was low, according to the decision, as she mishandled small amounts of money for only a few days at a time in each case, and none of her clients suffered any harm. She said a reprimand or, at most, a modest fine, would be justified.
She also said that the four-month suspension sought by the Law Society would “kill” her practice and if the conditions were imposed, no other lawyer would take her on as an employee.
Guo also argued that the Law Society’s discipline process should be modified in her case because it is systemically biased against her as a female, Asian lawyer and that she should only be suspended if the Law Society could prove that, if she weren’t, there would be harm to the public.
However, the panel said it concluded the one-month suspension was necessary to protect the public and that Guo’s record establishes that she has “repeatedly failed to comply with Law Society regulation regarding trust matters in the past.”
Furthermore, she “failed to establish that the discipline process is biased against Asian-Canadian lawyers like her,” according to the decision.
“We wish to stress that we are not finding as a fact that the discipline process is not biased against racialized lawyers, nor are we suggesting that the Law Society need not be concerned about this possibility,” the panel’s decision reads.
This isn’t the first time Guo has faced the disciplinary panel.
Last year, in a separate matter, the panel found Guo committed professional misconduct by failing to supervise her employees, failing to comply with trust accounting rules, and leaving a series of blank signed trust cheques with her bookkeeper, which facilitated the bookkeeper’s theft of $7.5 million of client trust funds.
The panel also found last year that Guo had misappropriated trust funds from some clients, in order to replace funds missing from other clients’ trust accounts that were needed to complete pending real estate transactions.
While the Law Society had asked for the ultimate disposal of disbarment in that matter, the panel decided to suspend Guo for one year.
That suspension was then stayed after the Law Society – which is independent of its own disciplinary panel – asked for a review of the panel’s decision.
The Law Society told the Richmond News on Thursday that a date for the review board hearing has not yet been set.
Guo has never been far from controversy in the last few years, having run unsuccessfully for mayor in Richmond in 2018, all while misconduct allegations were unravelling.
When it comes to the $7.5 million, Guo claimed in her defence that her bookkeeper stole the money from her law firm’s trust accounts in 2016, before laundering the cash at a casino and fleeing to China.
Guo told the society’s disciplinary panel at that hearing that her mistake “was placing trust in her employee who took advantage of her trust to commit a sophisticated scam” and her actions didn’t amount to professional misconduct.
She said at the time that her subsequent attempts to repay to her clients the “stolen” $7.5 million – which the society ruled as a breach of trust accounting rules – was an honest bid to minimize the overall impact of the missing trust funds on her clients.
Guo also made the headlines last summer when the Richmond News reported how she had lost a lawsuit over a disputed $740,000 renovation bill at her offices in Richmond.
She was ordered to pay $311,000 plus interest and court costs of $100,000 to IRL Construction, after it was hired to carry out an extensive renovation project at her No. 3 Road office building.
-With files from Alan Campbell