Legal Ethics

Ethics Complaint Targets Assistant AG for Using Grandma Ruse in Condo Investigation

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An assistant attorney general in Illinois has been accused in an ethics complaint of falsely claiming he was helping his grandmother look for apartments while he investigated the handicapped accessibility of condos.

The condominium project was the subject of a pending lawsuit by the attorney general’s office, and the defendants were represented by counsel. But the lawyer, Paul Ambrose Rathburn, didn’t notify the opposing attorney about his March 2008 visit to the condo building, the complaint alleges.

The Legal Profession Blog has news of the complaint in a post titled “The Grandma Ruse.”

Rathburn went to Onan Senior Suites in Waukegan, Ill., along with another lawyer and a disability specialist from his office, according to the complaint. He had told his colleagues he planned to visit areas of the building that were open to the public. But when he arrived he rang the doorbell and told the building manager he was looking for condos for his grandmother in Wisconsin, the complaint says.

Rathburn is accused of violating the ethics rules by making a false statement of material fact; obtaining evidence using methods that violate the legal rights of a third person; and conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

There was no answer at a phone number listed for Rathburn with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. Rathburn’s lawyer, Mary Robinson, says her client has cerebral palsy and believes in fighting for the rights of disabled citizens. He had worked as a fair-housing tester years before and “unthinkingly fell into the ways he had learned in those days,” Robinson told the ABA Journal in an e-mail.

“I question whether this is really a disciplinary case,” Robinson said. She cites Office of Lawyer Regulation v. Hurley (PDF), a 2009 Wisconsin Supreme Court order involving a criminal defense lawyer who used a ruse to obtain a computer owned by his molestation client’s juvenile accuser. The lawyer had informed the youth he would get a new computer if he turned over his old one to a company conducting research on computer usage of young adults. The state supreme court found no ethical violation.

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