Nonprofit head faces sanctions after board cites ‘outrageous’ conduct

Disciplinary panel recommends suspension for lawyer’s ‘false’ testimony

By: - August 14, 2023 2:26 pm

The executive director of an Iowa organization that helps immigrants and refugees is facing a potential suspension of his law license. (Photo via Canva; seal courtesy of the Iowa Judicial Branch)

The executive director of an Iowa organization that helps immigrants and refugees is facing a possible suspension of his law license.

The Grievance Commission of the Iowa Supreme Court has recommended that the justices suspend for 30 days the law license of Mike Mbanza of New Liberty. Mbanza maintains a private law office and also serves as the founder and executive director of Path of Hope, a Coralville organization also known as the Center for Student Services. The organization is dedicated to providing legal assistance and other forms of help to low-income refugees and immigrants.

The commission’s recommendation stems from a March 2022 case initiated by the Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board. The board’s complaint is tied to Mbanza’s 2019 legal representation of a man who was criminally charged with domestic abuse.

In 2020, through Path of Hope, Mbanza signed that same man’s application for immigration, which had been drafted by a staffer. That application, according to the board, incorrectly claimed the man was married although Mbanza handled the man’s divorce, and failed to disclose the man’s arrest and guilty plea in the domestic abuse case.

Shortly before the Grievance Commission held a disciplinary hearing on the matter, Mbanza filed a counterclaim against the Attorney Disciplinary Board and sent an email to the board’s legal counsel threatening litigation, stating they “should expect claims of malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress naming you personally and professionally as a defendant.”

The counterclaim was dismissed, and at the commission’s disciplinary hearing Mbanza argued the immigration application was only a draft document that was never sent to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. The commission said the evidence showed otherwise and was also at odds with some of Mbanza’s own testimony, which the commission described as “evasive or contradictory on several points.”

After the hearing, the commission recommended Mbanza’s license be suspended for 30 days and that he be required to complete additional educational training in ethics and civil procedures. The commission cited aggravating factors in the case, including sworn testimony by Mbanza that the commission said was “evasive, contradictory and false.”

The commission also made note of what it called “Mbanza’s obstructionist conduct during litigation and at the hearing,” and noted that his refusal to comply with discovery requests had resulted in sanctions.

Mbanza recently appealed that recommendation, arguing a 30-day suspension is not warranted given the lack of any other complaints against him during his four years of practicing law. He said his conduct involved “an isolated, single incident” that warranted only a private admonishment.

Path of Hope, he argued, “relies on funding from individuals and entities to operate and serve low-income families.” A public reprimand or a suspension “would dramatically impact the agency’s financial health in a negative way, which in turn, would have dire consequences upon the low-income families it serves.”

The Attorney Disciplinary Board has countered that “Mbanza’s obstreperous conduct throughout the commission proceedings, and subsequent misleading and contradictory testimony, necessitate a suspension of his license … Mbanza’s behavior was so outrageous it has no Iowa counterpart in disciplinary proceedings.”

As for Mbanza’s argument that he serves people in need at Path of Hope, the board says “this mitigating factor should be tempered by the vulnerability of, and potential harm to, a member of that very community.” Mbanza’s actions, the board says, potentially harmed his client by prompting immigration officials to review his criminal history, thereby increasing his “chances of being deported to the country he fled because of persecution.”

Mbanza declined to comment on the matter when contacted by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, noting that the Iowa Supreme Court has yet to make a decision on what sanctions, if any, should be imposed.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.