A lawyer and former mayor of West Vancouver committed misconduct when he accepted $75,000 as a gift from one of his clients, a disciplinary committee has found.
Mark Sager, who ran for a return as mayor in 2018, said in an interview last year the gift could be easily explained away: the client in question was his godmother, who wanted to thank him for some legal work he did for her.
But the Law Society of B.C. found Sager still broke the rules when he took the money because lawyers in the province cannot accept a gift that is “more than nominal” from a client, unless that client has had independent legal advice concerning the gift.
Reached by phone on Monday, Sager said he had no comment on the law society’s findings. He served as mayor of West Vancouver from 1990 to 1996 and has spent the last two decades heading his own law firm. He lost his most recent bid for mayor in October.
The misconduct surrounds Sager’s relationship with an aunt-like figure he’d known since he was a child.
The law society’s decision, posted online Monday, said the woman, identified only as J.B., was a longtime, “very close friend” of Sager’s mother. Sager and his sister grew up with her and called her “Auntie J.”
In 2012, J.B. had a fall at her North Vancouver home. Then 83, she was hospitalized and later moved to a care centre in West Vancouver. The decision said she phoned Sager for help six months after her fall, unhappy with the care she was receiving and her overall “predicament.”
The society said Sager helped rewrite J.B.’s will, represented her in her divorce, and helped her estranged husband buy her out of her home — the house she’d lived in for decades — in the months that followed.
Sager would ultimately be written into J.B.’s new will, while her biological niece was written out, and would receive a $75,000 gift from the money J.B. made on the sale of her home.
Assistant, associate unaware
The society said Sager asked his associate to “step in” regarding J.B.’s will in January 2014 because Sager was “conflicted out” due to his relationship with her.
Both Sager’s assistant and his associate said they didn’t realize J.B. wasn’t Sager’s biological aunt, as they only ever heard him refer to her as Auntie.
Sager and his sister were included in J.B.’s new will as her “nephew and niece.”
J.B. gave Sager the $75,000 gift that June.
Nearly a quarter of her estate went to Sager when she died on Jan. 21, 2016 at the age of 86. Sager was executor of the will.
The law society launched an investigation after J.B.’s younger sister complained in 2017.
During hearings, Sager admitted to what had happened but said it wasn’t professional misconduct. He said he didn’t know he was breaking the rules because they’d only been added to the B.C. Code for lawyers in 2013.
The decision said he argued “lawyers should be entitled to a reasonable amount of time to gain familiarity with the new Law Society requirements.”
The panel disagreed, saying the case was “not a situation where a rule of very recent vintage caught a lawyer by surprise.”
The decision said Sager’s behaviour was a “marked” departure from the standard expected of lawyers in the province.
A penalty will be decided at a later date.
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