The strange journey of Howard Kieffer

In 2006, Howard Kieffer represented a professional hockey player convicted of trying to kill his agent. He also defended a phony preacher who ran a fraud empire out of his Atlanta prison cell. In 2007, Kieffer was hired to represent a Colorado wo...

Howard O. Kieffer, accused of impersonating a lawyer, hides his face outside the federal courthouse in Bismarck, N.D., on Monday. Kieffer's trial has been scheduled for Nov. 18 in Bismarck. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of mail fraud and making false statements in U.S. District Court. (James MacPherson / Associated Press)

In 2006, Howard Kieffer represented a professional hockey player convicted of trying to kill his agent. He also defended a phony preacher who ran a fraud empire out of his Atlanta prison cell. In 2007, Kieffer was hired to represent a Colorado woman charged in a high-profile murder-for-hire case. That same year, he testified in a case of an accused terrorist in Miami.

When a federal prosecutor discovered Kieffer wasn't an attorney in 2006, the ruse was never exposed.

These are just a few chapters in the 53-year-old Kieffer's strange but true life.

Court records, news reports and interviews with people he duped reveal that before he was arrested at his Duluth home last month on federal charges of mail fraud and making false statements, Kieffer already had a lengthy criminal record, including a conviction for scamming the Internal Revenue Service; was often in the spotlight for major cases; and even was a Democratic Party delegate and campaign aide for a U.S. congresswoman in California.

Yet he was always one step ahead of a system that seemingly had no interest in catching him.


During his "career," court records and archived news stories show that Kieffer was able to defend numerous high-profile cases, make thousands of dollars and buy high-priced homes and cars while never raising the suspicion of the real lawyers he practiced with, seemingly because he was knowledgeable on the law.

An unusual history

Among the many strange twists his life has taken, according to news reports and court records:

* In 1976, he was found guilty of possessing more than $48,000 in stolen checks, a conviction set aside because he was only 20.

* In 1983, he was convicted of grand theft. According to the Los Angeles Times, he illegally deeded himself a home that he used as collateral for a loan. "When the loan was foreclosed," the paper reported, "the actual owner, a widow, was forced to give up the home to pay for it, authorities said."

* Between 1985 and 1989, he violated his probation by using a former employer's credit card to buy furniture. "It is apparent [Kieffer] is criminally oriented and will continue his criminal acts," his probation officer is quoted in the Orange County Weekly as saying.

* In 1989, at age 33, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison by a federal court for filing fake tax returns in what was called "one of the largest tax scams ever uncovered in Southern California." For five years, according to the Los Angeles Times, Kieffer filled in W-2 forms with bogus salaries drawn from fake companies, demanding refunds for the excess withdrawals he claimed. In total, he stole $212,000 from the IRS before it caught him through a tip.

* That same year, upset by the charges and his previous convictions, the Democratic Party of Orange County tried to oust him from its board.


* In 1991, imprisoned at Sandstone, Minn., Kieffer filed a complaint against a warden and represented himself in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

* By 1992, he was out of prison. By 1997, he had formed a Santa Ana, Calif.-based business called District Counsel, which at the time was listed as a debt collection company but now is listed as a law firm and uses the same e-mail address as Kieffer's other "law firm," Federal Defense Associates. An incorporation record listed his wife, Leanne, as the company's president. Both were named in a 1999 breach of contract suit against District Counsel, according to Orange County Superior Court records.

* In the mid 1990s, Kieffer became one of the biggest leaders and donors of the Orange County Democratic Party and played a leading role in the campaign of Loretta Sanchez, who won election and has served in Congress since 1996.

Other Sanchez backers at the time urged her to drop the known felon from her campaign, but Sanchez was quoted by the OC Weekly saying they would remain "close friends."

"What am I supposed to do -- shun him?" she asked in an interview,

Sanchez's office declined comment for this article, saying only that Kieffer was just a volunteer for her campaign.

* In 2003, Kieffer and his wife were taken to court by the city of Santa Ana for refusing to do anything about the barking of their two springer spaniels. It was a case, Kieffer was quoted as saying, "that showed the lack of supervision and accountability in the city attorney's office." After several days of testimony, a jury found the Kieffers guilty, a decision that was reversed by the judge, who said the ordinance was unconstitutional. A smiling Kieffer posed with one of the offending dogs for a photo that ran in the Los Angeles Times.

* In early 2006, Kieffer represented Wayne Milton, a fake preacher who sneaked out of federal prison camp at night to further his mortgage fraud schemes. Milton was convicted on charges of escape from federal prison, conspiracy to commit mortgage and grant fraud, and aggravated assault on a deputy U.S. marshal, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


* In mid-2006, Kieffer represented St. Louis Blues hockey player Mike Danton in an unsuccessful appeal of his sentence for plotting to have his agent killed.

* In September 2006, William Siler, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tennessee, discovered that though Kieffer claimed to be admitted to practice law in California, a simple phone call and letter from a clerk for the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that wasn't true.

Siler forwarded his findings to the Tennessee Attorney General's office, which apparently never followed up with an investigation. The office did not return a News Tribune phone call seeking comment.

"There wasn't much they could do with the case," Siler said. "It wasn't like he was practicing in Tennessee."

* Sometime in 2006, Kieffer, his wife and their daughter moved into a home near the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. It's not known why they chose Duluth.

* By 2008, Kieffer was known as one of the foremost experts on federal prisons and sentencing appeals, representing at least 16 different clients in 10 jurisdictions and boasting several high-profile cases. He even testified in the Miami case of Kifah Wael Jayyousi, a co-defendant of convicted terrorist abettor Jose Padilla.

Under questioning in that case on June 5, according to court records, Kieffer said he earned a degree from Antioch School of Law and that he was licensed to practice in North Dakota and California. However, he admitted in a letter to the U.S. District Court of North Dakota on June 30 that he was not a graduate of an accredited law school and not a bar member of any legal jurisdiction. That letter caused him to be disbarred.

Kieffer, who pleaded not guilty to the federal charges last week in Bismarck, N.D., did not respond to requests for comment for this story.


Blending in with the crowd

So how did he convince other attorneys that he was a lawyer? By intermingling with them and sounding remarkably like one.

"He knows what he's talking about," said Bruce Houdek, a Kansas City, Mo.-based defense attorney whom Kieffer fooled.

Houdek said he first met Kieffer at a training seminar for federal defense attorneys, where he said Kieffer often gave sound legal advice and spoke so much that Houdek thought he was a featured speaker. The group sponsoring the seminars denies that.

Kieffer later asked Houdek to help him gain access to practice in a Missouri court through a "pro hac vice" motion, in which Houdek essentially vouched that Kieffer was a lawyer in good standing with the federal courts.

Because of his experience at the seminars, Houdek said he never thought to question Kieffer's credentials.

"He's very competent in his area," he said. "He seemed like an expert."

That was the impression Kieffer gave Neal Atway, an Ohio attorney who first met Kieffer about four years ago at a training seminar.


"He seemed like a very intelligent lawyer," he said. "The guy knew a lot of things that us lawyers didn't know.

"He actually gave me some ideas on some cases in legal arguments that I thought, 'Wow, that's pretty intelligent. I never thought about that,' " he said. "I found out afterward that the reason he knew about an area is that he was convicted under an act that he mentioned to me."

Atway said Kieffer conned him into consulting on two cases. On the first, Kieffer gained Atway's trust by helping him get a client transferred to a prison closer to his home in Arizona.

After that, Atway had a client who wanted him to call Kieffer for help to get the client's sentence reduced. Atway said Kieffer ended up bungling the case.Atway still is upset about being duped.

"If I see that guy again," Atway said, "I'm going to kill him."

Atway said his court district requires all federal defense attorneys to attend at least one training seminar a year. While those seminars are only open to federal defense attorneys, they appear to be where Kieffer met many attorneys who were later duped.

"Howard Kieffer regularly attended these seminars," Atway said. "Whenever I think back to the ones I've attended, he was at just about all of them. I would talk with attorneys who were at other seminars and said he was there. He must have been at all of them."

Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the federal defenders training branch, which sponsors the seminars, said it appeared that Kieffer falsified information to attend entry into the seminars.


"The standards are nowhere near as stringent for practicing in court," Carelli said.

He said that in March 2008 seminar sponsors learned Kieffer wasn't a federal defense attorney and even had questions that Kieffer was an attorney at all. He was confronted at a Chicago seminar and told to leave and not come to future events.

But Carelli said law enforcement was never notified.


"I don't think I could supply an answer that would satisfy you," he said. "We'll just leave it at that."

What To Read Next
Get Local