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Role in suspected money laundering scheme nets B.C. lawyer suspension

Richmond lawyer Spencer Owen May's improper legal work for alleged money launderers has landed him a two-month suspension following findings of professional misconduct.
Money laundering regulations in Canada require federal and provincial regulations.

Richmond lawyer Spencer Owen May has been suspended from his practice for two months and ordered to repay the Law Society of BC over $20,000 for his role in shady real estate deals suspected of being part of a money laundering arrangement.

On May 7, a society disciplinary panel issued the penalties to May, who was found to have committed professional misconduct between 2015 and 2018 while conducting real estate transactions for clients whose arrangements ultimately became the focus of a national newspaper article (the newspaper is not named by the panel, but circumstances make clear it is the Globe and Mail ’Proceeds of Crime’ article).

The article sparked an investigation into May’s practice from the society since it noted the involvement of lawyers in the arrangements.

At the root of the arrangements was alleged money launderers using lawyers such as May to place builder liens on homes owned by Chinese nationals who accepted high-interest loans likely funded by drug sales; the liens served as collateral.

May misled the court by failing to disclose material information, including the whereabouts of his clients’ associates, and was otherwise incompetent in handling transactions, according to an Aug. 31, 2021 hearing panel decision. However, the hearing panel did not deem May acted with dishonesty, noting May relied on translations, including from his paralegal to communicate with the clients.

But, the hearing panel stated that May’s clients were conducting transactions that were under “objectively suspicious circumstances” and “cried out” for inquiry.

For example, the hearing panel ruled how “information that an ‘unsophisticated’ builder has loaned US$200,000 to a client, through a third party, via an account at a hotel in Las Vegas, requires exploration.” 

The hearing panel found May “did not ask any questions about this remarkable transaction” and “his failure to inquire is incompatible with the critical and analytic faculties competent lawyers are expected to bring to their practices.”

In the disciplinary hearing, the society asserted May mounted a “vigorous defence” to the citation against him rather than admitting or acknowledging misconduct.

May appealed the professional misconduct findings at the B.C. Court of Appeal but lost, in May 2023.

May told the disciplinary panel that the citation had caused hardship for his career, community work and on his family life.

May also argued that utilizing builder liens for money laundering was novel and not something lawyers had been made aware of.

May sought only a monetary fine and no suspension whereas the society applied to have May suspended for two months — the panel found a middle ground, noting May’s misconduct struck at the root of basic legal work, regardless of whether the conditions were novel:

“He (May) failed to review documents. He did not ask questions about the Clients or the information they presented to him, when the need for inquiry was obvious. He led false evidence. He withheld relevant information from the Court in ex parte applications. He made negligent misstatements to the Court and did not correct them. In short, the Respondent’s breaches of his professional obligations were prosaic.”

The disciplinary panel concluded that “the seriousness, scope and extent of the misconduct supports a suspension of this length” and that “in our view, a lesser suspension would be insufficient to acknowledge the range, number of instances, duration and gravity of the misconduct.”

May was called to the bar and admitted as a member of the society in May 2007. Since October 2015, he has practiced at Campbell Froh May and Rice LLP, as a partner.

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