Legal Ethics

$8.4M Pact, Seeming Cover-Up Put Nearly 12 Detroit Lawyers on Hot Seat

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Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is reportedly only one of nearly a dozen area lawyers whose conduct concerning a police whistle-blower case is mushrooming into a major scandal.

A state court jury awarded $6.5 million last September to two police officers who said they were forced out of their jobs because their efforts brought to light alleged wrongdoing within the mayor’s security detail. City officials vowed to appeal, then did an about-face and settled the case for $8.4 million. Now, documents unsealed last week by the Michigan Supreme Court appear to explain why, recounts the Associated Press.

A treasure trove of 14,000 text messages exchanged on city-issued pagers had been obtained by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Mike Stefani. They appear to show not only that the mayor was having an affair with his chief of staff but had told a different story on the witness stand in the whistle-blower trial about both the relationship and the firings of the two plaintiff police officers, according to the Associated Press and other media accounts. In an attempt to keep the text messages from becoming public, Kilpatrick allegedly approved the $8.4 million settlement.

Now at least one newspaper is saying that the state governor has the power under the state constitution—and a multiplicity of reasons—to consider removing Kilpatrick from office. “The civil damages judgment in the Brown-Nelthrope police whistle-blower case was a finding that the mayor fired conscientious police officers to ward off an investigation into his own wrongdoing,” writes the Detroit Free Press. “That alone, all questions of perjury and text-messages suppression aside, could well be cited as ‘official misconduct.’ “

And new investigations are ongoing that could involve up to a dozen lawyers including the mayor, reports Crain’s Detroit Business. Among them are inquiries by the Wayne County prosecutor into the conduct of the mayor and his chief of staff; by Detroit city agencies into the way the lawsuit and the settlement were handled by those who oversaw it; and by the Attorney Grievance Commission into the conduct of the city and private lawyers involved in the lawsuit, its settlement, a related Freedom of Information case and the text-message situation.

Even knowing about irregularities could be a problem for lawyers, regardless of whether they personally participated in wrongdoing, the business publication notes:

“Serious misconduct by any lawyer, and that includes the mayor, should be reported,” says Peter Henning, a professor at Wayne State University Law School professor, “and it’s the duty of all lawyers as officers of the court to do that.”

Earlier coverage:

CBS News: “Detroit Cops Win $6.5M Suit Against Mayor” “Judge Shines Light on Secret Pact to Settle, Hide Text Messages”

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