This story has been updated with a response from Matthew Ortiz.
The final notice, the one that said he'd been disbarred, was sent to a post office box at a shipping store in midtown. Matthew Ortiz, once a Santa Fe city councilor and an attorney for 25 years, must now make a living another way.
The New Mexico Supreme Court disciplinary board's recommendation to strip Ortiz of his law license is full of ugly words like "stealing," "deceit," and "dishonest." The court's order disbarring him said he had to notify all his clients, including any family members he's represented, and potentially refund money. He also had to pay $764 for the cost of the hearing.
In a statement Thursday evening, Ortiz told SFR he disagreed with the attorney from the disciplinary board who accused him of using money from a lawsuit settlement for himself instead of giving it immediately to a bankruptcy court on behalf of his clients.
Ortiz, who currently works as director of the Administrative Law Division for the Commission of Public Records at the state, said that his legal practice has been a side job for years and he chose not to spend time and money defending himself.
"I made mistakes," Ortiz told SFR. "By not fighting the charges, I owned the consequences for my mistakes. As I told the Supreme Court and disciplinary counsel, I did not need my law license. I was not practicing law anymore. To that end, I accepted the Supreme Court's decision."
Ortiz said he felt as though the state "picks and chooses what cases and which attorneys they want to make examples of. … From my perspective, I've been a favorite target of theirs."
Ortiz said he was disappointed with himself during a November hearing, when his opening statement appeared contrite.
"Your honors, I surrender. I offer my license, I offer my legal career to a higher authority. I do not challenge the facts that have been alleged against me," Ortiz told the Supreme Court as he represented himself in the disciplinary matter.
"When I appeared before this court in January, I was humiliated," Ortiz continued, referring to an earlier hearing in 2017, during which the state found he hadn't cooperated with disciplinary officers and subsequently suspended him. "I have learned humility. I do not have the evidence to support or even contend against the information that has been leveled against me by disciplinary counsel."
In recordings of the hearing, the former District 3 city councilor apologized to the court and disciplinary attorneys for taking its time.
But the court wasn't about to let Ortiz off the hook without a full explanation of why he'd been ignoring its orders. For the better part of a year, Justice Charles Daniels said, the court had been waiting for Ortiz to confirm he had let his clients know that he'd been suspended.
"Regardless of what personal decision you may have made as to whether the challenge of being a lawyer is too much for you, we still have to look out for those clients," Justice Charles Daniels told Ortiz. For example, why was the attorney still holding money in a trust account?
Ortiz said he hadn't been practicing law during the past year and didn't have any clients. The money in his account was for a case that had been long since closed, he said.
"It doesn't make any difference," Daniels told him. "That's someone who ought to receive notification you're not a lawyer anymore."
The state's website says Ortiz has been earning $69,000 annually in his administrative job.
Ortiz served on the Santa Fe City Council for 12 years, during which he frequently clashed with fellow councilors as he led the Finance Committee. Former Councilor Miguel Chavez filed an ethics complaint against Ortiz in 2010, claiming that Ortiz failed to disclose a conflict of interest when he voted on matters concerning a client, Advantage Asphalt and Seal Coating. Joe Anthony Montoya, the owner of the company, was sentenced to prison time for charging Santa Fe County for work that had actually been performed by county crews.
Daniels and his fellow justices pressed Ortiz on why he still had money in his trust account and why he hadn't paid it back. Eventually, Ortiz admitted he didn't have a good reason for keeping the roughly $400 instead of returning it to his client—money he told the court belonged to Montoya. Ortiz said he had stopped working on the case when he went to work for the state in March 2014. Later, the state's attorney told the court that at last check, Ortiz' account actually contained $1,700.
When justices asked him whether he thought what he did he was wrong, Ortiz waffled between admitting he'd taken money from clients that was rightfully theirs and implying he had some sort of excuse for doing so. At one point, Daniels appeared so exasperated with Ortiz that he raised the possibility of throwing the attorney in jail for contempt of court and failing to notify all his clients, in writing, that he been suspended.
Ortiz' fall from legal grace has been a long time coming, and began in 2012.
According to disciplinary records from the Supreme Court, Ortiz sued the New Mexico Corrections Department on behalf of Enrique and Renee Fernandez. While the lawsuits were pending, the couple filed for bankruptcy. A year later, Ortiz settled the suit. After deducting attorney's fees and expenses, the pair was owed roughly $58,000.
But after waiting nine months for Ortiz to transmit the money to the bankruptcy court, a trustee asked the court to make Ortiz explain himself or pay up. Ortiz told the court he must have sent the check to the wrong post office box. He promised to overnight the check.
Within a week, he'd sent a $29,271 check from his Interest on Lawyer Trust Account to cover Renee Fernandez' part of the settlement. But he didn't send the other half to cover Enrique. At the time, a disciplinary hearing would later discover, Ortiz was more than $13,000 short is the IOLTA account, which lawyers have to strictly maintain as a trust for their clients.
Over the next few months, Ortiz did finally pay the money owed for Enrique Fernandez' settlement. But the bankruptcy court found his delay unconvincing, held him in contempt of court and fined him more than $1,600. He didn't pay it on time.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General's Office complained about Ortiz' handling of the Fernandez settlement. Ortiz argued he was withholding money to protect the couple from taxes. By this time—August 2016—the state's disciplinary office wanted to see statements for Ortiz' trust accounts. By January 2017, he still hadn't produced them.
Ortiz did admit, however, that he had been mixing the funds in his trust account with his own money. Records would later show that instead of paying Enrique and Renee Fernandez their settlements, Ortiz wrote checks to himself for $50,000. It was nearly $16,000 more than his fees and expenses.
On Jan. 4, 2017, the state suspended Ortiz for failing to cooperate and told him to notify his clients. He didn't.
Disbarment is a relatively rare disciplinary step. According to state records, since the beginning of 2015, only six attorneys have been banned by the Supreme Court from practicing law.
Ortiz told SFR Thursday night, "With hindsight, I am glad to put that chapter behind me and I am very relieved to not have the pressure of juggling a side practice anymore."