Municipal residency requirement for elected official leads to disbarment
Andrew D. Purcell, who was disbarred in Missouri in October and has been assigned a case number by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, learned the hard way that lawyers can get into trouble when they claim to be in two places at the same time.
The legal woes for Purcell, a former state prosecutor, started when he decided in March 2022 to run for a seat on the Williamson County Board and swore under oath he had been a resident of that Illinois county since March 2021, the Benton News reported.
An opponent successfully challenged Purcell’s candidacy using the residency requirement on the basis Purcell was a member of the Bridgeton, Missouri, city council until April 2022.
Purcell was appointed to that position in 2018 and later elected to a two-year term in April 2020. He failed to inform the city of Bridgeton that he had moved away, according to the Missouri chief discipline counsel motion seeking disbarment. Purcell is licensed to practice in Missouri and Illinois.
Bridgeton’s charter requires that council members be voters within the city limits and states that members forfeit their offices if they no longer reside in the city, the motion states.
The candidacy challenge was successful and kicked off a chain of events. In May 2022, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged Purcell with a Class D felony, stealing by deceit. Around that time, Purcell apologized in a Facebook video.
In June, Purcell pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of stealing without consent and was sentenced to one year of supervised probation. He returned the $6,000 city council salary he earned for the year he lived outside Missouri, and he was banned from seeking public office during his probation.
While the plea allowed Purcell to avoid the possibility of a felony conviction and jail time, it triggered the Missouri disbarment proceeding.
“Communities can take their residency requirements very seriously,” says Richard C. Reuben, a University of Missouri School of Law professor who teaches election law. “It’s deeply baked into our concept of democracy that people who make decisions about the community should come from the community.
“The message here is that people who want to push the envelope on residency requirements may get away with it for a while, but it probably won’t last,” he adds.
Purcell did not respond to ABA Journal interview requests. Multiple phone calls and emails were also made to Michael P. Downey and Paige Tungate, his attorney discipline defense attorneys. They did not provide a comment.
In his response, Purcell argued he should have been allowed to keep his law license because he wasn’t convicted of a crime involving “fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
In addition, Purcell attended almost three quarters of the Bridgeton council meetings despite “being a busy young attorney and parent of young children,” the response states.
“Finally, Mr. Purcell believes he acted with the mistaken belief that he could reside in both Missouri and Illinois, not a dishonest or selfish motive,” his attorneys wrote.
And the filing claims Purcell was an active member of the community.
“Understandably, this court may not credit his work with the Bridgeton City Council, Board of Adjustment and Housing Board as public service,” the filing states. “But it should not overlook or discount his volunteer work, which includes serving as head coach of the Eagles Little League baseball team and as assistant coach of the Pattonville High School Bowling Team, his volunteer work with Evangelical Children’s Home – Every Child’s Hope and with the Delta Gamma Center.”
Additionally, the response states Purcell got a full-time job in Illinois in 2021 while going through divorce and custody proceedings. He was concerned that any financial instability could hurt his chances of keeping custody, the filing states.
From March 2021 to March 2022, Purcell “maintained his Missouri residence for other activities,” his answer states. Those activities included family dinners, his son’s school events and city council meetings.
“Sometime in 2021, Mr. Purcell realized that it might benefit him to relocate to Illinois,” according to his lawyers. He registered to vote in Illinois in November 2021, according to his response.
The chief discipline counsel motion seeking disbarment cites the American Bar Association Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions, as well as Missouri Supreme Court Rule 5.21, which focuses on attorney discipline for criminal activities. A week after Purcell’s Missouri disbarment, Illinois’ ARDC filed a petition for reciprocal discipline. That case is ongoing.
Ben Trachtenberg, a University of Missouri School of Law professor who teaches professional responsibility, says the case is a good reminder for lawyers that not appearing to tell the truth can raise questions about your fitness to practice law.
“Not every lie is going to get a lawyer in trouble. There’s ordinary dishonesty, like telling your children there’s a Santa Claus, and then there’s deeper deceit, such as defrauding the public,” says Trachtenberg, who also serves as an associate dean for academic affairs. “That kind of deceit can get you in trouble even when you are acting outside of the practice of law.”
Reasonable people could disagree on whether disbarment was an appropriate punishment for Purcell, Trachtenberg says. However, Irwin R. Kramer, managing partner of Maryland’s Kramer & Connolly, says Purcell’s disbarment doesn’t surprise him.
“We didn’t need three years of law school to learn thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not lie,” says Kramer, who defends lawyers in disciplinary proceedings. “These are not complex legal lessons here. This is something everyone should know.”
This story was originally published in the February-March 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Dual Occupancy: Municipal residency requirement for elected official leads to disbarment”