By Tom Ozimek
The Iowa Supreme Court has suspended the license of a lawyer who leads an organization that assists immigrants and refugees after he made false representations on a client’s federal immigration application and then engaged in “outrageous” behavior when faced with disciplinary proceedings.
The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board had charged Mike Mbanza, founder and executive director of Path of Hope, with violating multiple Iowa ethics rules and a federal regulation governing practice in immigration matters.
This led Mr. Mbanza’s case to be considered before the Grievance Commission of the Iowa Supreme Court, which in August recommended that the justices on the high bench suspend his license for 30 days.
Calling the case “a cautionary tale for lawyers about the bounds of proper advocacy when defending against ethics charges,” the high court recently ruled to suspend Mr. Mbanza’s law license for 30 days and compel him to undergo “legal education.”
The Iowa Supreme Court noted in its decision that the grievance commission had not only found that Mr. Mbanza committed several of the charged violations but “also found significant aggravating conduct” on his part that “eclipsed the gravity of the underlying charges.”
Mr. Mbanza didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Mbanza, who began practicing law in Iowa in April 2019, maintains a private law office in Coralville and is also the executive director of a nonprofit he founded called Path of Hope.
The mission of the organization is to assist immigrants and refugees in legal matters and matters relating to resettlement.
In May 2018, Mr. Mbanza began representing a client—referred to in court documents by the pseudonym “Randall” because he had a criminal charge expunged after a deferred judgment—on federal immigration matters.
Earlier, Randall had been arrested on charges of domestic abuse assault against his wife, and Mr. Mbanza defended Randall in the ensuing criminal case. After Randall pleaded guilty, he received a deferred judgment.
Mr. Mbanza also represented Randall in a divorce case and a civil protective order related to the domestic abuse assault, all while Randall’s immigration matters proceeded.
In March 2020, Mr. Mbanza’s nonprofit, Path of Hope, submitted on Randall’s behalf an application to register permanent resident status (Form I-485) to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The application “contained several misrepresentations,” the Iowa Supreme Court stated in court filings.
Besides the fact that the information on the form incorrectly noted that Randall was still married to the woman he’d divorced two months earlier, the form also contained inaccurate information pertaining to criminal history.
“In response to five separate questions about Randall’s criminal history, the application failed to disclose his commission of the domestic abuse assault, arrest, criminal charges, guilty plea, and deferred judgment,” the court document states.
The form also failed to provide information on a section of the form seeking additional information about the criminal history disclosures.
Mr. Mbanza signed the preparer’s certification under penalty of perjury even though he had not prepared or reviewed the document, per court filings.
After the Iowa Attorney Disciplinary Board became aware of the misrepresentations on the immigration status form, it proposed a public reprimand to resolve the ethics violations associated with the false representations.
Mr. Mbanza objected to the proposed reprimand, claiming in a response that a Path of Hope lawyer named Naara had prepared Randall’s application without Mr. Mbanza’s input or involvement.
The board then filed a complaint against Mr. Mbanza with the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission, alleging multiple violations of Iowa’s ethics rules and a violation of a federal regulation governing immigration matters.
The rules of the grievance commission entitle the board to conduct a discovery process, with the Iowa Supreme Court noting in court documents that this proceeding “included an extraordinary number of discovery disputes, almost all of which centered on Mbanza’s refusal to provide meaningful answers” to the board’s requests.
Not only did Mr. Mbanza fail to provide substantive responses, but also he filed multiple frivolous motions to wrong-foot the process and threatened to file claims against each of the board’s members if the board didn’t drop the complaint against him.
Further, at a hearing, Mr. Mbanza provided testimony that contradicted earlier written statements he provided, as well as other evidence offered at the hearing.
In court documents, the disciplinary board was cited as saying that “Mbanza’s obstreperous conduct throughout the commission proceedings, and subsequent misleading and contradictory testimony, necessitate a suspension of his license,” adding that “Mbanza’s behavior was so outrageous it has no Iowa counterpart in disciplinary proceedings.”
In August, the grievance commission recommended a 30-day law license suspension and a requirement for Mr. Mbanza to attend six hours of continuing legal education on ethics and civil procedure.
The Iowa Supreme Court, in its recent decision, adopted the recommendations and imposed the suspension and additional legal training on Mr. Mbanza.