Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Can't See The Forest (Or The Conflict) For The Trees

An Illinois Hearing Board has recommended a censure of the former chief counsel to the Cook County Forest Preserve Division for representing a private client (an employee that he supervised while serving as a public officer) in matters that were substantially related to his public responsibilities.

The attorney oversaw the Forest Preserve Division's disciplinary matters. The employee had been involved in a dispute with a fellow employee.

Although Respondent was not involved in any controversy between [his client] Williams and Dennis White (as Respondent had left the Forest Preserve District by the time those issues arose), he was involved with William's employment matters during his tenure as chief counsel of the District. In that capacity, he was familiar with Williams' employment history, had discussions with the chief financial officer regarding budgeting for her position, and directly supervised her work after she joined the legal department. As the ranking legal officer, he also would have been privy to the District's views on litigation and the handling of employee disputes and discipline. In his December 2006 memo to the human resources department, Respondent discussed the reasons for Williams' transfer, expressed his opinion that she had not done anything to warrant termination, advised that such action could be viewed as a retaliatory measure, and recommended that a solution be found that did not involve Williams' termination.

We conclude that Respondent's knowledge of a memo that was favorable to Williams, as well as his familiarity with the thought processes, priorities and vulnerabilities of the Forest Preserve District in relation to Williams, could have affected his decision to bring suit on her behalf and could have provided an advantage in his litigation and/or settlement strategy. We note that, in drafting the federal court complaint, Respondent included allegations relating to Williams' transfer to the legal department and the reasons for the transfer. While he testified the allegations were included as background information only, we believe a reasonable person could infer a pattern in the way Williams was treated by the District.

We believe Respondent was shortsighted in failing to anticipate at the outset of his representation of Williams that her former situation could become an issue in subsequent litigation or in potential settlement discussions. He acknowledged he ultimately withdrew from representing Williams in federal court, in part, because of concerns that he might be called as a witness. Respondent's recognition of a potential problem regarding his representation of Williams is telling and, in our minds, further cements the nexus between Williams' earlier employment issue and the cause of action asserted in her lawsuit.

The board rejected charges of dishonesty, false statements and unauthorized practice. (Mike Frisch)

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