Partner struck off for dishonesty over expenses claims
A partner who tried to “obfuscate his charging of personal expenses” to clients of international firm Reed Smith has been struck off.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that George Constantine Panagopoulos misled colleagues investigating his expenses by altering key documents and then lying about when he had made those amendments.
Though he ultimately wrote off the expenses and did not bill the clients for them, he did not pay for them himself either.
The SDT recounted how Dr Panagopoulos, who was head of Reed Smith’s Athens office at the time, stated that the office’s marketing budget was for him to use as he saw fit, and was effectively “part of his package”.
It said: “This demonstrated, at the very least, a cavalier attitude to the appropriate treatment of expenses.”
Dr Panagopoulos, who qualified as a solicitor in 2000, charged to three client files flights, taxis, subsidence and hotel expenses, totalling approximately €3,000, for himself and his daughter for a trip to London in October 2019.
Most were later written off at the point of billing, with €480 that was billed to a client reimbursed by the firm.
Reed Smith instigated an investigation out of concern that it had been a purely personal trip.
The solicitor said he had intended to meet a broker who was involved on each of the client matters but that the meeting was cancelled after booking the flights, making it a purely personal trip by the time it took place.
Dr Panagopoulos told both the investigation and the SDT that there was no evidence of the meeting but, on his second day of giving evidence before the tribunal, produced a paper diary entry.
He told the SDT that he had meant no electronic record and the existence of his paper diary only occurred to him when asked about a diary entry the previous day.
The SDT said: “For a litigator of Dr Panagopoulos’s experience, this explanation was incredible. No experienced litigator, knowing that the existence of a proposed business meeting was under question, could fail to appreciate that a diary entry (whether in paper or electronic form) referring to the meeting was relevant both to the initial investigation and to his defence of an allegation of misconduct in relation to charging his expenses to a client matter.”
During a meeting with a partner investigating the incident, he left to obtain detailed billing reports (DBRs) that showed “squiggly lines” through some of the entries, with the words “purge/reverse” next to them.
Asked whether he had written the words at the same time as the lines, he said he had.
The evidence, however, showed that his practice was to put squiggly lines through items there were not to be added to bills, and that he only added the words ahead of the investigation meeting.
The investigation concluded that the trip had no business element and the expenses should not have been charged to client files or then charged to the firm when written off. Further, Dr Panagopoulos had fabricated documents relating to his expense claims.
The firm’s senior management decided that Dr Panagopoulos should leave the firm and he resigned in March 2020.
The SDT cleared Dr Panagopoulos of the first allegation that he had instructed his secretary to bill the clients for the expenses because of its wording. The tribunal said there was a difference between charging the expenses to a client file and actually billing the client.
But the SDT found he had added the words “purge/reverse” before the investigation meeting and lied about doing so.
It did not believe his argument that they were “merely confirming the intention” of the squiggly lines – everyone in the office knew what the lines meant and there was no reason to add to them.
The “only plausible explanation… was that Dr Panagopoulos had intended for it to seem as if he had given his secretary written instructions, beyond the effect of the squiggly lines, such that the expenses would be not just be written off (‘purged’) but would also be charged to him personally.
“The evidence of [the firm] was that an expense which had been charged to a client file would not automatically be charged to the partner’s personal account on being written off from the client bill, absent a specific instruction to that effect.
“These expenses had all been paid for using Dr Panagopoulos’s firm credit card, and so they had already been paid by the firm, and would remain so unless they were billed to a client, or the partner instructed that they should be charged to him/herself.” Dr Panagopoulos did not do this.
The SDT found that his explanations had been “later constructed by him in order to defend the allegation that he had improperly tried to claim personal expenses from the firm or the firm’s clients”. His evidence was “inconsistent and unnecessarily vague in parts”, even on matters that were not controversial.
It concluded that he had “attempted to obfuscate his charging of personal expenses to the firm”.
He had breached Reed Smith’s trust “by altering documents which were the subject of an investigation, and being untruthful about when those amendments had been made”.
The misconduct was aggravated by his “proven dishonesty” and attempts to blame his secretary.
In mitigation, the SDT said it had regard to the testimonials provided on his behalf, “and the eminent career he had had”.
The usual sanction in the event of dishonesty is a strike-off unless there are exceptional circumstances.
The dismissal of the first allegation did not amount to one, the SDT said. “The tribunal had not found that the expense claims were legitimate, rather that the allegation had been inappropriately worded, and so could not be made out…
“The tribunal decided that in view of the serious nature of the misconduct, in that it involved dishonesty, the only appropriate and proportionate sanction was to strike Dr Panagopoulos off the roll of solicitors.”
He was also ordered to pay costs of £20,000.