Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Tomorrow before the Ohio Supreme Court for oral argument
Columbus Bar Association v. Natalie J. Bahan, Case no. 2019-0219
A Logan County lawyer faces suspension for attempting to establish a client relationship with a woman charged with murdering her husband because attorney disciplinary investigators believe the lawyer was motivated by the financial gain that could come from a high-profile case.
The Board of Professional Conduct recommends that the Ohio Supreme Court suspend Natalie J. Bahan for six months with the entire suspension stayed on the condition that she commit no further misconduct. Bahan objects to the recommendation, arguing she didn’t violate any of the rules governing the conduct of Ohio lawyers, and that her purpose for visiting the jail was to make sure the accused woman knew her legal rights.
The Columbus Bar Association filed a complaint against Bahan with the board, after determining that Bahan was visiting Rosalie N. Kennedy, a woman she didn’t know, in jail not to simply advise her of her legal rights, but to entice Kennedy into hiring her. The bar association claims the action violates the rule that bars lawyers from seeking employment from a potential client if the lawyer’s significant motive is for “pecuniary gain.”
News of Case Prompts Jailhouse Visit
In March 2017, Kennedy was arrested for the murder of her husband, Gary Kennedy, and was incarcerated in the Logan County jail. A day later, Bahan learned from local media reports of the arrest and discussed the case with a fellow Logan County lawyer, Sheila Minnich. Minnich told a board hearing panel that Bahan was interested in the case and told Minnich she was going to visit Kennedy in jail to make sure she was legally protected. Bahan also told Minnich that she wanted the experience of representing a client with a murder charge.
Before going to see Kennedy, Bahan spoke with Marc Triplett, an experienced criminal defense attorney who was qualified to be court-appointed lawyer for suspects charged with murder who couldn’t afford an attorney. Bahan and Triplett discussed the case, and Triplett told Bahan he saw nothing wrong with Bahan talking to Kennedy for the purpose of assuring her rights were protected.
Bahan visited Kennedy and told her she needed an attorney and to consider whether she could afford a lawyer. She explained to Kennedy how lawyers are appointed to indigent defendants. Two days after the initial visit, Bahan returned to the jail and presented a fee agreement, estimating it would cost Kennedy about $50,000 for representation. Bahan didn’t have the experience to be appointed by the court to represent a suspect in a murder trial, and she had discussed assisting Triplett if he were to represent Kennedy. That way, Bahan could gain experience. However, the fee agreement only listed her and no other attorney as the one who would represent Kennedy.
Lawyer Assesses Suspect’s Financial Status
After her second meeting in jail with Kennedy, Bahan went to Kennedy’s home to inspect the murder scene and meet with Kennedy’s two adult daughters. She discussed with the daughters the possibility of her being hired to represent their mother and talked about the proposed fee. Bahan asked about Kennedy’s assets, in part to evaluate whether she was eligible for a court-appointed lawyer, but also to see what resources were available to pay a fee in the range of $30,000 to $50,000.
Triplett wasn’t available to represent Kennedy, and when Bahan made a third visit to see Kennedy in jail, Kennedy told her she had made arrangements to hire another lawyer. Bahan testified that Kennedy thanked her for her help and told Bahan to send her a bill. Bahan sent a lengthy text message to one of Kennedy’s daughters and stated that there was nothing more she could do at the moment, but she hoped she would “get paid for what I did.” She sent a bill for $1,400 to the Kennedy’s house.
Kennedy’s daughter confirmed she received the bill, but didn’t pay it. Bahan said she didn’t pursue the matter.
The Columbus Bar Association filed a complaint against Bahan for violating the rule regarding solicitation of a client in-person when the solicitation is primarily motivated by financial gain. The board found Bahan violated the rule and recommended a fully stayed six-month suspension.
Bahan objects, arguing she didn’t violate the rule, and if she did, it was not intentional and that no harm came from it. She argues a public reprimand is the appropriate sanction.
In her brief, Bahan notes that Triplett, and another experienced criminal defense attorney, Perry Parsons, both met with Bahan before she made the first visit, and both attorneys said they saw nothing wrong with a visit to discuss her legal rights.
Bahan said she was motivated by gaining experience and improving her trial skills. She denied that she went because she was motivated by the money, and maintains that she shouldn’t be charged with breaking the rule.
Bahan said she saw how Kennedy was portrayed in the media, and she was motivated by the serious problems the woman was facing. The lawyer maintains the bar association wasn’t able to meet the standard that proved by clear and convincing evidence that Bahan broke the rules.
Lawyer’s Version of Events Not Credible, Bar Association Maintains
The bar association asserts that Bahan’s version of the events isn’t credible and that it was clear she approached Kennedy in order to represent her and advance her career by participating in a high-profile murder case.
The bar association notes that while Triplett and Parsons testified that they saw nothing wrong with Bahan going to the jail to discuss Kennedy’s legal rights, neither was told about Bahan presenting Kennedy with a fee agreement. Neither offered an opinion as to whether they would agree it would have been appropriate to visit if they knew that Bahan was seeking to represent Kennedy.
The bar association also notes that Bahan inquired about whether Kennedy could sell property to pay her attorney fee, should she be hired, and asked to be paid for the work she did, even if she didn’t attempt to collect it. The bar association argues that even if Bahan was somewhat motivated to visit Kennedy to discuss her legal rights, that doesn’t exclude the possibility that she was significantly motivated by her future potential to earn more money by representing murder suspects. The group urges the Court to adopt the board’s findings and issue a fully stayed suspension for Bahan.
- Dan Trevas