Mary Lou Porak suffered debilitating injuries when two drag-racing drivers smashed head-on into her car 14 years ago. Hospitalized for weeks, she hired attorney Gregory Chernushin to make claims against the drivers' insurance companies, and, according to a court document, was awarded settlements totaling $200,000.
But she says she didn't get a dime, and now she believes Chernushin made off with her money.
Porak is only the latest client to report suspicions Chernushin cheated her, but her case is different, because it dates back many more years than those of other clients who've made similar allegations.
Already disbarred from practicing law for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients and a contractor, Chernushin is being investigated by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court regarding assets available to repay those from whom he stole.
Now Chernushin might face criminal charges. The District Attorney's Office says the Colorado Springs Police Department last week submitted its investigative report of Chernushin's activities regarding an undisclosed number of alleged victims.
Porak isn't among them, though, because she only recently discovered she might have been duped. She's also lost out on payment from a state fund that reimburses clients who fall victim to unscrupulous lawyers, because she hasn't been able to access old bank records to prove her case.
Regardless, the still-working interior designer at least would like to have the satisfaction of telling him what she thinks.
"I would like to see him, face-to-face," Porak says. "I would probably use some pretty bad language and tell him he really hurt my life, and I'm ashamed of even being involved with him and hope he goes to hell."
On Aug. 22, 2002, Porak was traveling westbound on Constitution Avenue when two teenagers crashed into her vehicle. Besides a deep gash in her forehead, she suffered a crushed leg, broken clavicle, broken arm and injuries to both shoulders. After numerous surgeries, she remains permanently disabled. She uses a wheeled walker to get around — her seventh so far, having worn out six others.
"I was in such bad shape," says the 77-year-old. "It has wrecked my life."
She hired Chernushin, a well-known personal injury lawyer, at the recommendation of another attorney.
Porak describes Chernushin as a well-dressed smooth talker: "He was constantly telling me we'd have to go to court and that would cost so much and that you rarely come out ahead." Then, in 2004, he told her she lost the case and he "up and went to France," she says.
This week, Chernushin hung up when he was reached by phone and asked to comment on the case.
Porak thought the matter was long forgotten until she received a letter last October from the Colorado Supreme Court, which was researching Chernushin's client files and discovered her case. "They had found a trailer or a storage unit and found my files," she says. "There was all the information on me and my wreck."
The letter said her file contained a check written to her by Chernushin on his bank account on March 8, 2004, for $45,804.63 that appeared to have been endorsed by her. But she says it's not her signature. Chernushin's pattern, according to other clients, was to have clients endorse settlement checks, after which he deposited them into trust accounts, from which he later withdrew the funds for his own use. Or, he allegedly forged their signatures and deposited checks into his accounts.
A court document Porak was recently given, filed by Chernushin on Feb. 10, 2004, states that she "has received $200,000 in settlement amounts." But she never got that money, she insists.
After Porak told the Supreme Court the signature wasn't hers and that she believes she's owed at least $200,000, she was invited to file a claim with the Colorado Supreme Court Attorneys' Fund for Client Protection. Which she did.
The fund verifies claims and reimburses victims from interest earned on clients' trust accounts held by attorneys across the state. As of last month, the fund contained about $4 million.
Jamie Sudler, with the Office of Attorney Regulation, says the older a claim is, the more difficult it is to collect. "A person who files a claim with the Fund for Client Protection needs to have evidence that they suffered a loss, and that the loss was caused by the dishonesty of the lawyer," Sudler says via email. "The passage of time can make that determination difficult in some circumstances."
Also, Sudler notes, the fund requires claims be made within three years after a claimant knew of the dishonest conduct. In Chernushin's case, nine claims have been submitted. Five of those, totaling $87,017, have been paid; another for $20,000 has been approved for payment, Sudler says. Two were denied, and one is pending.
Porak's claim was denied. In a Feb. 12 letter to Porak, the Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel said, "There is not clear and convincing evidence of a violation of the disciplinary rules." Porak admits she's had difficulty patching together proof, noting in her letter to the disciplinary board, "I called my bank to see if any information was available from 2004 and found out that it was not."
While Porak's case wasn't among those investigated by the CSPD, it might have qualified as a potential case, because the statute of limitations on theft is three years from time of discovery, and there is no time limitation on forgery, says DA's spokeswoman Lee Richards.
When told police had submitted a case to the DA's Office, Porak gave a one-word response, "Good."
Although she's not "dying for money," she'd like her settlements.
In retrospect, Porak is still amazed that her knack for sizing up people, gained during a 50-year career working closely with clients in the interior design field, failed her.
"I wouldn't have expected him to be the type he turned out to be," she says. "He's that salesman type that can make anybody do anything."