TABOR CITY, N.C. (WECT) - A North Carolina State Bar investigation into the legal affairs of a high profile Columbus County attorney has been suspended. Former State Senator R.C. Soles has been transferred to “disability inactive status.” He requested the change in 2019, and the bar agreed. As a result, an investigation into pending claims that he mishandled clients’ money was put on hold.
Last year, a superior court judge granted the State Bar’s request for a preliminary injunction against Soles, after receiving information alleging the long-time attorney had mishandled entrusted funds. The order barred Soles from handling funds on behalf of clients, acting as a trustee, settlement agent, or other personal representative on clients’ financial matters.
Soles has been practicing law in North Carolina since 1959. Four months after the State Bar obtained the injunction curtailing his legal practice, the now 85-year-old Soles told the bar he wanted to go inactive for medical reasons. He shared letters from his physician indicating his physical condition had deteriorated.
“Soles currently suffers from physical limitations caused by several medical conditions, including profound hearing loss and other chronic medical conditions which significantly impair his professional judgment, performance or competence as an attorney,” the Consent Order transferring him to inactive status notes.
Under the order, Soles is to “refrain from practicing law in North Carolina unless or until returned to active status.” Clients are able to request return of their files from Soles’ law practice.
“Investigation or action on any… Grievance pending as of the date of this order or received after the date of this order is hereby abated unless or until Soles is reinstated to active status. Should Soles be reinstated to active status, investigation or action…shall resume,” the order explains.
Last year, Soles admitted to WECT he mishandled clients’ money, but said it was simply a mix-up with different accounts at his bank. He claimed no money was missing, he had just withdrawn funds from the wrong account. His decision to go inactive as an attorney may mean we never learn if the State Bar investigators’ findings support Soles’ position that it was an honest mistake.
If they found otherwise, Soles could have been disbarred, or even arrested if prosecutors reviewing the results of the investigation deemed criminal charges appropriate.
“If the evidence shows an attorney mishandled client funds in a manner that violates the criminal statutes, such as embezzlement, then the attorney could be subject to being found to have violated several Rules of Professional Conduct and thereby subject to potential discipline against his or her law license. The maximum disciplinary sanction that can be imposed by the State Bar against an attorney is disbarment, and attorneys who are found to have embezzled client funds have typically been disbarred,” Jennifer Porter, Deputy Counsel for the North Carolina State Bar explained when asked about potential sanctions for attorneys found to have mishandled clients’ money.
“However, every case is different, and the decision of what discipline is appropriate is made independently on a case-by-case basis,” Porter added. “An attorney alleged by the State Bar to have violated the Rules of Professional Conduct has the right to a hearing before a three-person panel of the Disciplinary Hearing Commission, which decides whether the evidence shows by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that the attorney violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and, if so, the appropriate discipline. The specific facts are significant, and not all mishandling of client funds constitutes embezzlement. If an attorney mishandles client funds in a manner that does not constitute criminal conduct, the attorney would still be subject to being found to have violated certain Rules of Professional Conduct but the discipline imposed may be something less than disbarment, depending on the facts.”
Soles spent more than 30 years serving in the state legislature, and has been the subject of numerous controversies through the years.
Around 2009, Soles was accused of sexually abusing young men he took under his wing. Though the allegations have periodically resurfaced in news articles and on social media since then, Soles continues to deny any sexual misconduct.
That same year, Soles was charged with shooting a 22-year-old former client who was reportedly trying to kick in a door at the senator’s home. Soles, who at the time was the longest-serving legislator in the state, announced he would not seek re-election in 2010 soon after. He ultimately pleaded guilty in February 2010 to misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon.
WECT’s attempts to reach Soles for comment on this story were unsuccessful. The number to his law office has been disconnected, and we were unable to find a working home number.