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.
Soon afterward, Celis came on the scene in a bathrobe and asked police to give him custody of the woman, flashing a badge indicating he was a reserve sheriff's deputy, though his status as a reserve officer had expired, court records and police reports show. He was charged with felony impersonating a public servant, but jurors opted to find him guilty of a misdemeanor charge of falsely identifying himself as an officer. He was sentenced to two years of probation.
Celis said it was "absurd" that he was convicted, noting that the credential had been issued to him.
He still faces charges of money laundering and theft, which stem from conduct related to his conviction for holding himself out as a lawyer, said Nueces County, Texas, District Attorney Mark Skurka.
Asked whether he was surprised that Celis applied in 2012 to a legal program at a prestigious university, Skurka said, "Nothing surprises me with that guy."
Celis applied to an executive LL.M. program at Northwestern that is geared largely toward teaching lawyers from other countries about "the Anglo-American model of common law," according to promotional materials. The eight-month program, run jointly by Northwestern Law and the Spanish institution IE Law School, includes online work and periods of study in Madrid and on Northwestern's campus.
From 'enthusiastic' to expelled
Celis presented himself to the school as a Mexican attorney, and according to his lawsuit, wanted the degree so he could teach at a law school in Mexico. A program official who interviewed him by phone in December 2012 concluded, "Mr. Celis is a very enthusiastic seasoned attorney, who I believe will add nicely to the dynamic of the September 2013 entering class," according to court records.
By early this year, program officials had learned that Celis is a felon — though court filings don't say how that came to their attention — and they sent him a letter in March accusing him of failing to mention his convictions and inaccurately describing his career. The letter told him he would be expelled.
He sued Northwestern and IE in April for breach of contract, claiming he had paid $56,894 in fees up until the date of the lawsuit and had incurred an additional $19,881.89 in "expenses related to the program."
The lawsuit argued that the application didn't specifically ask Celis about criminal convictions, and Northwestern's lawyers did not contradict that claim. The law school's lawyers said in court filings that Celis should have known his convictions were relevant to his application to a legal program.
Celis' litigation casts a light on an increasingly popular law school offering — the LL.M. program, which more universities have adopted as enrollment in traditional law programs has declined in recent years, according to the American Bar Association. These range from New York University's long-running program on tax law to more esoteric offerings from lower-ranking schools in areas including maritime law and animal law.
Law professors said these programs vary in quality and usefulness to students, and a widely circulated joke posits that LL.M. stands for "Lawyers Losing Money."
No professor questioned the quality of Northwestern's program, but court filings indicate that the application process differs from that of the university's main law program. Celis' lawyers made that point in court by filing a Northwestern J.D. application that directly asks about criminal convictions. And a University of Illinois spokeswoman said the law school there asks applicants for its main program about criminal convictions but does not ask the same question of its applicants to LL.M. programs — many of whom are foreign students.
Campos, the Colorado professor, noted that universities can take a hit to their reputation by admitting or graduating students with serious criminal records.
And, Campos added, a university might want to know if it is inviting a felon to campus.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun