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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: February 2023 | Transition

Disbarred, Poisoned, and Left for Dead

Norm Tabler


  • This is a cautionary tale for lawyers to stay vigilant and diligent in supervising their employees.
  • A Texas lawyer, Art Guzman, fell victim to the deceit and embezzlement of his employee, Ashley Szymonek.
  • Ashley embezzled money from Art's personal and business accounts, including IOLTA funds, over several years, amounting to a quarter of a million dollars.
  • She failed to pay his malpractice insurance premiums, taxes, and office rent.
  • Her fraudulent activities also included falsifying documents and sabotaging Art's communication channels.
  • This lead to him being disbarred, having to close his practice, and his office building going into foreclosure.
  • But before he could close his practice, he was poisoned by antifreeze and slipped into a coma spending weeks in the hospital, when warrants for his arrest surfaced for alleged theft from a client.
Disbarred, Poisoned, and Left for Dead

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Has someone on your staff ever taken advantage of you? Did it make you angry? Did you feel foolish for letting it happen? If so, you may be heartened to learn about Texas lawyer Art Guzman’s experience with employee Ashley Szymonek.

Art ran a solo practice with Ashley as his only employee. She was the firm’s primary contact for banks, accountants, and others, and her personal email account was used for much of the firm’s correspondence and even Art’s personal affairs.

In mid-2019, Art and his former wife, Valerie, were in the process of selling an office building when they learned that Art had been the victim of identity theft. Around that time, a former client sued Art and filed a grievance with the Texas bar, alleging that the checks drawn on Art’s IOLTA account had bounced. Art knew the client was mistaken because Ashley had shown him the cancelled checks deposited by the client.   

Art filed an answer to the civil complaint and asked Ashley to contact his malpractice carrier. She reported that an attorney had been assigned and had filed a motion for summary judgment. But later Art learned that the client had won a default judgment. Ashley said she had set up a phone conference with the malpractice attorney.

Art drafted an answer to the bar grievance and asked Ashley to file it. But then an acquaintance informed him that he had been disbarred! Checking with the bar, he discovered that he had been defaulted. That was puzzling because Ashley had shown him a file-stamped copy of his answer. He prepared a motion for a new trial and asked Ashley to file it.

Ashley reported that she had filed the motion and that his hearing was set for March 18. Then she said it had been rescheduled for March 31, then April 10, then April 24, then April 29.

Meanwhile, Art’s wife, Shelly, received notice of an IRS inquiry. Art tried to contact his accountant but couldn’t reach him. Ashley said she had set up an April 28 phone conference with him.

Art arrived at the office early the morning of April 28. He recalls meeting Ashley but can’t remember much after that. No one could reach him for the rest of that day, and he failed to return home that night. True, Shelly received responses to her texts, but they didn’t sound at all like Art.

Shelly called Ashley, who reported that Art had been despondent, cried, and tearfully said he was closing his practice. The next day Ashley told Art’s daughter, Madison, that upon arriving at the office, she had found Art in a deep sleep on a couch. She emphasized that Art had been depressed for a long time.

Madison visited Art’s office to check on him. At first, the outer doors couldn’t be unlocked because the locks had “broken keys in them.” Eventually able to enter, she found Art asleep, his face “bloated, and vomit … coming out of his mouth.”

She called 911, and Art was rushed to the hospital, where his temperature proved to be dangerously low, and his organs were shutting down. The doctors suspected he had been poisoned. Tests revealed the ingestion of a large amount of antifreeze. Art remained in a coma for several days.

Could it get any worse? Yes! In the hospital waiting room, his family learned that warrants had been issued for Art’s arrest for theft from a client. Ashley claimed to know nothing about it.

The next week Madison learned that a trial notebook for the bar proceeding was missing, as were numerous other files, checkbooks, receipt books, emails, and electronic data. Someone had installed some eighty spam filters in Art’s email system, blocking correspondence from banks, accountants, the state bar, and the client who filed the grievance, among others. In fact, thousands of files, contacts, and billing records had been deleted from all office computers.

Around that time Valarie learned that the office building she owned with Art had been posted for foreclosure. How could that have happened? Because, the bank explained, for months Art had failed to respond to efforts to reach him by phone, email, and certified mail.

As you’ve gathered by now, for years Ashley had been diverting Art’s personal and business funds, including IOLTA funds, for her personal use˗˗in all, a quarter of a million dollars. What’s more, his accountant had not done his taxes for 15 years despite Ashley’s annual presentation to Art of tax documents bearing the accountant’s name.

The former client’s claim against Art? The checks had bounced. The cleared checks Ashley showed Art were phony. The grievance proceeding? Ashley had never forwarded Art’s pleadings. The former client’s lawsuit? Art’s malpractice insurance had lapsed years ago because Ashley had diverted the premium payments to her own account. No attorney had been assigned to Art’s case.

Now, back to the opening paragraph, when you were reflecting on that time a staff member took advantage of you. Doesn’t that misdeed now seem petty? And compared to Art, aren’t you a pretty careful supervisor? I thought so.