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Legal Ethics

Top Ohio Court Suspends Former Chief Public Safety Counsel for 6 Months Over Email Interception

Posted May 17, 2012 2:34 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Already fired and prosecuted over his role in illegally intercepting worker emails directed to the state inspector general, the former chief counsel for the Ohio Department of Public Safety was slapped with a heavier-than-expected legal ethics sanction by the state's top court.

The Ohio Supreme Court's Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline had recommended a public reprimand for Joshua A. Engel, who reportedly agreed to the penalty. But going beyond even the six-month stayed law license suspension originally sought by disciplinary counsel, a majority of the state's top court on Thursday imposed the six-month law license suspension without a stay, the Columbus Dispatch reports.

Engel, who the court held had not intended to illegally intercept investigatory information, said he was only trying to determine who was leaking confidential information to the media and others. However, once he found out that he was intercepting, he should have taken off the email filter, the court pointed out.

"Engel acted recklessly and stipulated that his conduct adversely reflected on his fitness to practice law and that it was prejudicial to the administration of justice," the majority wrote.

Hence, despite his lack of any prior disciplinary history and a number of mitigating factors, a suspension was required:

“We find ... that his distribution of confidential information about pending law-enforcement and ethics investigations to those who were not authorized to receive such information, while he served as chief legal counsel for DPS, worked to undermine public trust, not only in the legal system, but in state government as a whole,” the majority says.

A dissent said that Engel, who pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors in 2010, had already been punished enough and argued that the court should have followed the sanction recommendation of its own disciplinary board.

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Two Ohio Public Safety Lawyers Ousted Over Allegations of E-Mail Snooping"

ABAJournal.com: "Ohio Officials Recommend Public Reprimand for State Lawyer Who Intercepted Emails"

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