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Ohio Supreme Court discipline board recommends 6 month suspension for lawyer who warned Ohio State coach of player misconduct

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent decision of the Ohio Supreme Court Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline recommending that a lawyer who sent e-mails to then Ohio State coach Jim Tressel warning him that Ohio State football players were selling memorabilia or trading them for tattoos receive a six month suspension.  The case is Ohio Supreme Court Board of Commissioners on Grievances re: Christopher Thomas Cicero.

According to the disciplinary Complaint, the lawyer met with a Columbus tattoo parlor owner named Edward Rife on April 2, 2010 and again on April 15, 2010, to discuss whether he would represent Rife in a federal drug-trafficking case.  Without informing Rife, the lawyer sent e-mails to Tressel stating that he had met with Rife, who was a former client, and that he “was just passing (the player misconduct information) on”.  He also stated in the e-mail that “(i)f he (Rife) retains me, and he may, I will try to get (the memorabilia) back.”  In another e-mail on the same day, the lawyer said “I have to sit tight and wait to see if he retains me, but at least he came in last night to do a face to face with me.”  The lawyer also asked Tressel to keep the information “confidential”.

The Complaint states that the lawyer played for the Ohio State football team from 1981 to 1984, he was admitted to practice in Ohio on May 16, 1988, and he had been suspended from practice for one year in 1997.  The revelation of the players’ activities triggered a scandal which ultimately led to Tressel’s firing and an NCAA investigation resulting in a bowl ban for this year, reductions in scholarships, the loss of Ohio State’s $389,000 share of Big Ten bowl payments, and the vacation of its entire 2010 season.

According to media reports, disciplinary board initially found in February 2012 that the lawyer violated Ohio Bar rules of professional conduct which prohibit revealing confidential information from meetings with a prospective client and recommended a six month suspension; however, the board agreed to review the decision after the lawyer requested reconsideration claiming that the board relied on a faulty transcript of a November 2011 hearing and that a corrected quote in the updated transcript could or would change the decision.  In the original transcript, the lawyer was quoted as stating that “I quoted (Rife) a legal fee and that’s just it.”  The corrected transcript stated that the lawyer actually said, “I never quoted him a legal fee and that’s just it.”  The Board said that the revised transcript was not sufficient to reverse the decision or the suspension recommendation. 

Bottom line:  This lawyer appears to have acted out a concern for the university from which he graduated and for which he played football.  This concern apparently caused him to reveal confidences provided to him by a client (or potential client) and, as a result, he may or will be suspended for six months for this rule violation.  Unfortunately, altruistic motives do not necessarily justify Bar rule violations…

Be careful out there.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding these or any other ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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