A few months before graduation day for a program geared toward international lawyers, Northwestern University School of Law made a discovery that a prestigious institution of legal education might prefer to avoid — that one of its students was a felon famous in Texas for falsely portraying himself as a lawyer.
Officials promptly notified Mauricio Celis in March that he would be expelled for failing to disclose his history as a convicted legal impostor. That's when Celis sued Northwestern, causing several undeniably legitimate lawyers to get involved.
Northwestern argued that Celis, 42, of Corpus Christi, Texas, misled admissions officials by failing to mention his criminal history, which includes a felony conviction for falsely holding himself out as a lawyer and a misdemeanor conviction for misidentifying himself as a police officer in an incident involving a woman who wandered nude from his hot tub to a convenience store. Celis is, Northwestern's lawyers wrote, an "undesirable candidate" for the master of laws program.
Attorneys for Celis, however, said no one asked about his criminal history. Celis, a former big-spending political donor, spent about $76,000 on the program and related expenses before being tossed out empty-handed, he claims.
Celis and Northwestern agreed to a voluntary dismissal of the suit, according to records filed Wednesday afternoon in Chicago federal court, though no details of any potential settlement agreement were disclosed.
Celis declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he maintains his innocence in all his Texas criminal cases. "I've been trying to put this thing behind me for many, many years already," he told the Tribune.
Dismissal of the suit would resolve the potentially embarrassing matter, but the suit itself draws notice to an expanding form of legal education — for the master of laws degree, or LL.M. Such programs, which often serve foreign attorneys, have proliferated as enrollment has dropped in traditional law programs — J.D. programs — and law schools seek revenue, experts said.
The controversy doesn't call the academic rigor of Northwestern's program into question. It does, however, indicate that the university came within months of granting a postgraduate legal degree to a man without asking him directly whether he was a felon, a question featured on the application to work at some Pizza Hut locations, for example. A Google search would have turned up some of the hundreds of articles that Texas media have written about Celis' legal travails, which admissions officials apparently didn't read before admitting him.
"The fact that this guy got into Northwestern … it's, I think, kind of revelatory of how much checking goes on even at a top program," said Paul Campos, a University of Colorado law professor and frequent critic of law schools.
Northwestern law school officials declined to comment.
Not 'faking my credentials'
Born in Mexico, Celis holds dual citizenship, according to his Northwestern application materials. He did legal work in Mexico and then, in 2005, co-founded a U.S. law firm that handled personal injury cases, according to court records. Celis cut a noticeable profile in Texas, giving campaign donations — largely to Democratic candidates — that reached well into six figures during the 2000s, campaign finance records show.
He also made news in Chicago. After six children died in a fire started by a candle in a Rogers Park apartment that had no power in 2006, Celis read a statement outside their wake, according to a Tribune story that quoted him as the family's attorney. Chicago firm Levin & Perconti eventually took over the case and reached a $6 million settlement with the building's owners and managers.
Celis said he wasn't sure how the newspaper got the impression that he was the family's lawyer. He said he might have been enlisted to help in the matter because he speaks Spanish, like the victims' family members.
Celis said he has "never allowed anyone to have the impression" that he was licensed to practice law in the United States.
"I let the lawyers do the lawyering."
But in 2007, Celis was indicted in Texas on charges of holding himself out as a lawyer. At trial, arguments turned on whether Celis could technically be considered a lawyer authorized to practice in Mexico, even though he's never been licensed in the U.S., according to court records. He argued that he received a legal education in Mexico and believed he was considered qualified to practice certain kinds of law there, though he did not have a particular document indicating official certification, court records show.
By phone recently, he said, "They looked at me as being some shyster faking my credentials," he said. "I am a Mexican lawyer."
Jurors found him guilty on 14 counts in 2009. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation.
In 2010, Celis stood trial for falsely identifying himself as a police officer in a 2007 incident. A woman testified that she drank too much and walked nude from Celis' hot tub to a convenience store, according to court records and trial coverage by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.