Sunday, June 17, 2012

Law center employs zero lawyers

The owner, who faces legal action in four states and a BBB warning, says he has done nothing wrong and has no intention of shutting down

Edward Jonak of Blaine operates a business called Affordable Law Center, advertises under "Attorneys" in the Yellow Pages, and says he has helped people facing bankruptcy, divorce and other legal issues for 18 years.

Jonak is not a lawyer. Nor do any of his businesses employ lawyers. For a fee, he can provide forms, referrals to lawyers and typists or even find you a bail bondsman.

Yet concerns about his business practices have prompted legal actions in four states that allege Jonak provided legal advice or illegally prepared bankruptcy documents. Earlier this month, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota put out a public warning about Affordable Law Center, describing a "clear pattern of deception on the part of this company."

"They have advertised themselves as legal experts here and in other states, when in fact they are not," said BBB president Dana Badgerow.

Jonak counters that only two complaints were filed against his business with the BBB in the past three years, and both were resolved. Despite the pressure of lawsuits, the government and the BBB, Jonak says he has done nothing wrong and has no intention of closing his business.

"It's driven by attorneys that don't like the lower prices that people are able to get through our organization," he said. "If you don't do much business, they leave you alone. But according to the Department of Justice I'm the biggest organization of my kind in the state."

"When you really start digging into it, you start seeing real clearly, 'Who's this guy hurting?'" he added.

That depends on whom you ask.

Customers don't appear to be up in arms, based on the lack of complaints to the BBB.

A 68-year-old customer from Biwabik told Whistleblower that she was satisfied with the help she got. She said Jonak advised her on how to go about filing for bankruptcy and gave her forms to fill out. She paid $580 for the service. "It was way cheaper than what I could afford to pay a regular lawyer," said the customer, who didn't want her name used.

"I've never had to give a refund to anyone," Jonak said.

But in a U.S. Bankruptcy Court action that seeks to stop Jonak from accepting fees in connection with bankruptcy cases, providing legal advice or representing that he can refer customers to lawyers, former customers testified about confusion and unexpected fees when dealing with Jonak.

Robert Mattfield testified that he "thought he was receiving legal services from the Defendant."

Kim and Kristi Francisco testified that "they were not sure if the Defendant was an attorney or not" and that they thought the fee paid to Jonak entitled them to representation at a meeting of creditors.

Other customers testified to receiving active advice from Jonak.

"Defendant told [Gayle Kersting] that the value assigned to her property on schedule B was not important, and [she] was advised not to turn over a canoe to the trustee because the trustee would never come and get it," court records state.

As a result of court actions, Jonak has been banned from preparing bankruptcy documents in Colorado; selling legal plans, giving legal advice and preparing bankruptcy documents in the Western District of Wisconsin; providing "any bankruptcy-related services" in the Western district of Missouri or accepting any fees from its residents.

Jonak said in an interview that he agreed to stop providing the services in those states because he had very few customers and because he doesn't actually provide those services anyway.

A lawsuit filed in St. Louis County last year that accused Jonak of the unauthorized practice of law was dismissed in January, after Jonak agreed to refrain from offering legal advice, preparing legal documents or furnishing the services of a lawyer.

The District of Minnesota bankruptcy court case is awaiting a judge's decision. Since Jonak conducts so much business in the state, he and his lawyer said they would appeal any adverse decision.

"Our state has yet to define a bankruptcy petition preparer. This order that's pending would be the case to do that," said Jonak's attorney, Karla Kluzak.

While awaiting that decision, Jonak is looking ahead.

In January 2011, he registered a new business with the Minnesota secretary of state, "That's the business I opened up when they started attacking Affordable Law Center," he said.

Badgerow, with the BBB, said "he's had this whole variety of names, and when he gets in trouble in one place he either ducks out of that area and/or changes his name. ... He's just putting on a little different mask but behind the curtain it's still Ed Jonak."

When Whistleblower asked how he's able to tell customers for his businesses apart, Jonak said: "Let's put it this way. I simply answer the phone and they tell me what they're calling about and I get them assisted in setting them up with a legal plan."

Jonak has not allowed Affordable Law Center to languish. Its website now markets its services to Nevada and California customers. Jonak said he allows another person to use his "business model" and have access to his "program attorneys" in exchange for a percentage of sales.

"I have somebody that handles Wisconsin. It's another person," Jonak said.

He also said he's in discussions with other potential business partners across the country.

The Wisconsin order stipulated that Jonak shall not "individually; in tandem with others; or by or through an entity of any type" offer to provide legal services or advice to residents of the District of Western Wisconsin.

But as Kluzak pointed out, "there are two districts in Wisconsin."

By The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Source: The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Lawyers prepare for trial in Auburn tree poisoning

 Defense lawyers for a University of Alabama fan accused of poisoning the iconic oaks at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn say they plan to be ready for trial this week even though their client’s poor health may affect his participation.

Harvey Updyke Jr.’s trial is expected to begin sometime after a pre-trial deposition of an analyst who tests soil samples, which is set for Monday.

Updyke’s lawyers on Thursday filed a notice saying that the doctor treating Updyke for his "poorly controlled" diabetes recommended that the 63-year-old get a neurological exam for "passing out spells," the Opelika-Auburn News reports (

The defense still plans to be ready but wanted the court to know that Updyke’s health could affect his ability to participate, said lawyer Everett Wess.

"Right now, we are planning to be there . I talked to him, and he doesn’t want to delay," Wess said.

Wess declined to discuss details of Updyke’s health complications but said his client was to see a doctor Friday.

Lee County District Attorney Robbie Treese said his office would continue to prepare for trial next week. He declined to comment on the notice.

Updyke has pleaded not guilty to charges against him, including first-degree criminal mischief, desecration of a venerated object and unlawful damage or vandalism of a crop facility related to the alleged poisoning of the trees with the herbicide Spike 80DF.

The case was originally set for trial last July but has been delayed numerous times for a variety of reasons, including continuances allowing attorneys more time to prepare, the departure of defense attorneys and an ultimately unsuccessful appeal to the state’s appellate court to overturn Judge Jacob A. Walker III’s decision to remain on the case.

Auburn University horticulturist Gary Keever said the condition of the trees has continued to deteriorate despite the efforts to save them. Reports from Dow AgroSciences, the company which makes Spike 80DF, estimate it could take as long as five to seven years for the lingering traces of the herbicide in soil around the trees to break down, Keever said.

By The Associated Press

Source: The Boston Herald

Monday, June 11, 2012

Seattle takes aim at Justice Department report on police tactics

City attorneys for Seattle have filed court documents in a federal civil rights case attacking the "reliability and trustworthiness" of the U.S. Department of Justice report that found Seattle police officers routinely use excessive force, even as city and federal lawyers attempt to negotiate a plan to fix the department.

The documents, filed May 18, challenge an effort to admit the Department of Justice report as evidence in a lawsuit against the city over an officer's threat to "beat the (expletive) Mexican piss" out of Martin Monetti Jr., a Latino man who was being questioned in a robbery two years ago.

The city is asking U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez not to allow the Department of Justice (DOJ) report into evidence and to eventually dismiss the lawsuit filed by Monetti. The city argues that then-Detective Shandy Cobane's "Mexican piss" remark was intended to control Monetti during a robbery investigation and not to offend Monetti, who was later released.

Meantime, the depositions of the officers involved in the incident, filed by the attorneys for Monetti, have caught the attention of DOJ lawyers attempting to negotiate a settlement with the city over its findings. Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bates, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, said he was "deeply troubled" by the sworn statements of officers, saying they appear to be attempts to "short-sell the unacceptable nature of this event."

The officers' recent sworn statements have only added to the DOJ's insistence on imposing a court-monitored consent decree on the Police Department to address findings that its officers routinely use excessive force, Bates said. The DOJ, in a report issued in December, said it also found strong, but inconclusive, evidence of biased policing.

Monetti has sued the city over an incident in which Cobane, during a robbery investigation in April 2010, threatened him as he lay prone on the pavement.

The community backlash led to a tearful apology by Cobane - who received a 30-day suspension - and a promise by Chief John Diaz that such language and attitudes would not be tolerated in the Police Department and would be considered firing offenses going forward.

But Bates said the recent filings - including portions of sworn depositions by Cobane and the other officers involved - indicate that message may not have been clear.

The filings have also added another flash point to the already difficult negotiations: Cobane acknowledged in a deposition taken May 21 that there is a department culture that tolerates that sort of language. DOJ lawyers cited the Monetti case in their December report as troubling evidence of biased policing in the department.

Bates said the depositions demonstrate that the officers involved in the Monetti incident continue to be "woefully unaware" of the department's policies regarding use of force and biased policing.

For example, Bates said, Cobane acknowledged that, two years after the incident with Monetti and after being reprimanded and ordered into additional training, he is unfamiliar with the department's policy on unbiased policing.

"You know, quite frankly, ma'am, I haven't read it," he told Monetti's lawyer during the deposition.

Cobane was asked whether the fact other officers at the scene didn't comment on the "Mexican piss" remark was indicative of a "department culture that tolerates that phrase being used?"

"I would say, yes. In the context that it was used, yes," Cobane replied.

Likewise, the supervisor on the scene that night, Sgt. Keith Swank, acknowledged in his deposition May 24 he did not think the phrase Cobane used was derogatory and suggested it was a "control tactic."

Bates said, "The attempts to short-sell the unacceptable nature of this event only confirm the need for comprehensive, enforceable reforms on all of the issues highlighted in the DOJ report."

The city's court filing provides its first detailed critique of the DOJ report, labeling it as full of errors.

In its filing, the city is asking Martinez to consider the DOJ's report document "inadmissible hearsay opinion," arguing that it is sloppy and incomplete.

"There are many negative factors that weigh against the reliability and trustworthiness of the DOJ report," wrote Assistant City Attorney Brian Maxey, who said the Justice Department based its findings on the "subjective opinions" of two retired law-enforcement officials hired as consultants.

Use of force, the city's attorneys wrote, must be analyzed under the "totality of the circumstances, not by a subjective review solely of use-of-force reports, which is the methodology used by the DOJ."

The report lacks key information, including "sample sizes," and "margins of error," the attorneys wrote.

They wrote that the DOJ has "systematically refused" to provide underlying data or its analysis for any systemic review, and that the city will be able to show "significant quantitative and methodological errors in the report even without the underlying data."

Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for City Attorney Pete Holmes, said in a statement that the filing would have to "speak for itself."

"It's ongoing litigation and the DOJ process is as well," the statement said.

According to the city, Monetti disregarded commands from officers to remain still while face down on the ground, forcing Cobane to shift to a "command voice de-escalation" technique, including what Cobane and the city acknowledge was the unprofessional comment, "I'll beat the (expletive) Mexican piss out of you."

But Cobane's comment had "no appreciable discriminatory effect," the city maintains.

The city also contends that a frame-by-frame analysis of video of the highly publicized incident shows that Cobane did not kick Monetti in the head, as Monetti has alleged.

Cobane, who was a gang detective at the time of the incident, was suspended for 30 days last year for the remark - the most severe punishment allowed short of firing - and demoted to officer. At that time, Cobane was contrite and Diaz denounced the remark, saying if officers used such language in the future, they would be fired.

Martinez is to hear the city's motion to dismiss Wednesday.

By Mike Carter and Steve Miletich, The Seattle Times

Source: The Kansas City Star

Lawyer registration fees going up to aid services for poor

In response to declining interest rates that have taken a big chunk out of funding for legal services for the poor, the Illinois Supreme Court has increased the amount attorneys must pay for registration.

The new rules also provide that retired judges who wish to remain active on the state roll of attorneys are no longer exempt from attorney registration fees.

The annual registration fee will increase from $289 to $342 - a jump of 18.3 percent - with the entire $53 increase going to the Lawyers Trust Fund that contributes to agencies that provide legal services to the poor in non-criminal cases. The increase is effective immediately.

The LTF gets its revenues from two sources - a portion of licensing fees and the interest on pooled funds that attorneys are required to hold for clients while their legal matters are pending.

The amount remitted to the LTF will increase from $42 to $95 under the new rules.

The increase is designed to offset the dramatic drop in interest rates banks have been paying on the pooled trust funds. That interest rate averaged about one-half of one percent in 2011 and has since declined even further.

"The Lawyers Trust Fund was a major part of our funding, and the interest money we receive has been steadily declining," said Michael Fiello, managing attorney for the Carbondale office of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance. "Without more funding, that income stream was going to run dry."

Fiello said it wasn’t just funding from the Lawyers Trust Fund that has been lagging.

"Other sources of income have been declining as well," he said. "This will help a lot."

In 2008, the LTF received more than $17 million in interest income. It is estimated it will get only about $2.7 million from those accounts in 2012.

The increase will add an estimated $3.5 million to LTF revenues, according to Ruth Ann Schmitt, executive director of LTF.

LTF grants have made up 23 percent of the budget of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, one of two major downstate legal aid programs. Land of Lincoln has five regional offices, including one in Springfield that serves Sangamon and nine area counties.

There are more than 66,000 active attorneys in Illinois. First-year attorneys pay no registration fees and second- and third-year lawyers pay a reduced fee that doesn’t include the LTF contribution.

By Chris Dettro, The State Journal-Register, 788-1510

Source: The State Journal-Register

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's lawyers respond to federal suit

 Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's attorneys asked a federal court Friday to dismiss claims that his office discriminated against Latinos during his offices trademark immigration patrols and had a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights.

The motion by Arpaio's attorneys came nearly a month after the U.S. Justice Department filed a suit accusing Arpaio's office of racially profiling Latinos and punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish.

Arpaio also is accused of launching some immigration patrols based on citizen letters that complained about people with dark skin congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish but never reported an actual crime.

The sheriff has denied allegations of systematic discriminatory policing. He has called the lawsuit a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration intended to gain favor with Latino voters, and insisted that the Justice Department provide facts to prove its allegations.

In their filing Friday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, Arpaio's lawyers said the sheriff's office should be dismissed as a defendant "because it is a nonjural entity incapable of suing or being sued."

The motion also said the Justice Department failed to back its claims with "sufficient statistical evidence."

Department of Justice officials said in a December letter to Arpaio that it provided those details to his office.

A call to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., for comment on Arpaio's motion wasn't immediately returned Friday evening.

The lawsuit came after settlement talks were called off in April when the sheriff refused to agree to a court-appointed monitor who would help enforce an agreement. The sheriff's office said allowing a court monitor would mean every policy decision would have to be cleared through an observer and would nullify his authority.

The Justice Department is seeking an agreement requiring the sheriff's office to train officers in how to make constitutional traffic stops, collect data on people arrested in traffic stops and reach out to Latinos to assure them the department is there to also protect them.

Arpaio has launched 20 immigration patrols known as "sweeps" since January 2008. During the patrols, deputies flood an area of a city ? in some cases, heavily Latino areas ? over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.

Arpaio hasn't launched a sweep in eight months. Critics say he has backed away from the sweeps because his lawyers have told him they make it more difficult to defend him in court. The sheriff disputes that he has suspended the sweeps and promised to launch one at some point in the future.

By The Associated Press

Source: The Fox News

Ariz. sheriff’s lawyers respond to federal suit

Attorneys for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio asked a federal court Friday to dismiss a lawsuit that claims his office carried out a pattern of discrimination against Latinos in the sheriff's trademark immigration patrols and had a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights.

The motion by Arpaio's attorneys came nearly a month after the U.S. Justice Department filed a suit accusing Arpaio's office of racially profiling Latinos and punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish.

Arpaio also is accused of launching some immigration patrols based on citizen letters that complained about people with dark skin congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish but never reported an actual crime.

The sheriff has denied allegations of systematic discriminatory policing. He has called the lawsuit a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration intended to gain favor with Latino voters, and insisted that the Justice Department provide facts to prove its allegations.

In their filing Friday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, Arpaio's lawyers said the sheriff's office should be dismissed as a defendant "because it is a nonjural entity incapable of suing or being sued.''

The motion also said the Justice Department failed to back its claims with "sufficient statistical evidence.''

Department of Justice officials said in a December letter to Arpaio that it provided those details to his office.

A call to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., for comment on Arpaio's motion wasn't immediately returned Friday evening.

The lawsuit came after settlement talks were called off in April when the sheriff refused to agree to a court-appointed monitor who would help enforce an agreement. The sheriff's office said allowing a court monitor would mean every policy decision would have to be cleared through an observer and would nullify his authority.

The Justice Department is seeking an agreement requiring the sheriff's office to train officers in how to make constitutional traffic stops, collect data on people arrested in traffic stops and reach out to Latinos to assure them the department is there to also protect them.

Arpaio has launched 20 immigration patrols known as "sweeps'' since January 2008. During the patrols, deputies flood an area of a city - in some cases, heavily Latino areas - over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.

Arpaio hasn't launched a sweep in eight months. Critics say he has backed away from the sweeps because his lawyers have told him they make it more difficult to defend him in court. The sheriff disputes that he has suspended the sweeps and promised to launch one at some point in the future.



Saturday, June 9, 2012

Father, son from Pa., sentenced to time served, probation for harassing Palin's Alaska lawyers

Two Pennsylvania men convicted of harassing Sarah Palin's Alaska lawyers were sentenced Friday to time served and five years' probation, with the proceedings briefly halted after a short outburst in court by one of the defendants.

During his sentencing in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, 20-year-old Shawn Christy said the judge's order that he live up to six months in a Pennsylvania community re-entry program was "ridiculous." His father, Craig Christy, 48, was ordered to perform community service.

The Christys, of McAdoo, Pa., pleaded guilty in January to making harassing phone calls to Palin's attorneys. Attorney John Tiemessen testified that the men's calls threatened Palin and attorneys. Both Christys apologized Friday for their actions.

Shawn Christy was released and sent back to Pennsylvania last month after an evaluation report said he wasn't a danger to the public.

Before that, he and his father had been held since their arrests in Pennsylvania last August. Prosecutors say the men were upset about state restraining orders issued on behalf of Palin, a former Alaska governor and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate. The restraining orders covered Palin, her family and friends.

In Friday's sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess ordered Shawn Christy to spend up to six months at the Scranton residential facility, where a bed will become available in mid-July. Christy wanted to return to his parent's home, where he had been living until his arrest last year.

"Why can't I go home now?" he said.

"Because I'm not letting you go home," Burgess said, prompting Christy to ask what was the judge's reason for imposing the order.

"It has to do with consequences," Burgess said. "It's part of the consequences for your behavior."

"I understand my behavior, and I understand this is ridiculous," Christy said. A short time letter, Burgess called for a short recess after blurts from Christy.

Burgess ultimately said Christy could stay with his parents at their McAdoo home until a bed at the residential facility becomes available.

After the sentencing was completed, Tiemessen said Christy's behavior in court was consistent with what he and others had witnessed in the past two years, including hundreds of calls from the Christys to his law firm's offices in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

"I've seen dozens and dozens of such little outbursts and worst," Tiemessen. "It just the first one Judge Burgess has seen."

Burgess rejected binding plea deals in December that would have allowed the men to avoid jail time.

Both men faced up to two years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. Tiemessen's law firm also is seeking about $15,000 in restitution for the billable hours it says were tied up in dealing with the huge number of calls to its offices in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Defense attorneys have said the Christys don't have the financial means to pay restitution, and Burgess did not rule on that issue Friday, saying a final decision can be made up to 90 days after sentencing.

Tiemessen testified earlier this year that many of the calls from the Christys began last June, escalating in July and August. Besides being threatening, many were filled with profanity, he said.

"There were hundreds of calls a day," he said at the time. "The only thing that ever stopped it, frankly, was when they were taken into custody."

According to an affidavit by the FBI, Craig Christy threatened to kill Tiemessen in one obscenity-filled message, and in another, Shawn Christy said he might have sex with Palin. The younger Christy also threatened to come to Alaska and rape one of the attorneys, according to the document.

The restraining orders were issued after Palin left office.

The order against Shawn Christy was issued in 2010 after he was accused of stalking Palin. It was renewed last year after Palin testified that Christy appeared to be sending a clear signal when he made a one-day visit to Alaska on her February birthday.

Palin also said she feared Christy's parents because of their claim that she had a sexting relationship with their son in 2009, when he was a teen.

The order against Craig Christy was issued last year after he was accused of barraging Palin's parents with telephone messages.

Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, attended the hearing Friday. They declined to comment.

Tiemessen said time will tell if the sentencing was adequate.

"The only adequate remedy is a remedy that results in our firm, our families, our clients being left alone," he said. "We're interested in the result, not necessarily the mechanism, that achieves it."

By The Associated Press

Source: The Washington Post

Aide could face charge in Edwards sex tape case

A prosecutor will decide whether an ex-aide to John Edwards will face contempt charges related to a court fight over a video purported to show the ex-presidential candidate having sex with his then-mistress.

North Carolina Superior Court Judge Michael R. Morgan appointed the prosecutor Friday to consider criminal charges against Andrew Young, his wife and two of their lawyers.

A judge previously found probable cause for contempt charges arising from a lawsuit filed against the Youngs by Rielle Hunter, who was Edwards' mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. The state court ordered sensitive documents in the lawsuit to be kept under seal, including a lengthy deposition given by Edwards.

Young and his lawyers have acknowledged providing those documents to federal prosecutors investigating Edwards prior to his 2011 indictment, but said they did so only after receiving a subpoena signed by a federal judge. Attorneys for the Youngs said they were asked by prosecutors to keep the subpoena a secret from Hunter and her lawyers.

Young was the government's star witness at Edwards' campaign corruption trial, spending more than a week on the witness stand. Edwards was acquitted on one count and the jury deadlocked on five others.

An aide once so loyal he falsely claimed paternity of Edwards' baby with Hunter and helped hide her from the media for nearly a year, Young turned against his former boss and testified for the prosecution under an immunity agreement.

The U.S. Justice Department has not yet decided whether to retry Edwards on the unresolved counts, but any such effort would likely be hamstrung if Young is charged with felony contempt charges.

The civil case between Hunter and the Youngs was settled earlier this year with a state court order that required copies of the sex tape to be destroyed, though federal prosecutors may still have a copy. But a hearing on the contempt of court issue was delayed until after Edwards' federal trial.

Morgan's order appoints District Attorney Jim Woodall to review the case. Woodall is the lead prosecutor for a two-county district that includes Chapel Hill, where both the Youngs and Edwards live.

Woodall said he expects to make his decision within 60 days.

"I've not reviewed anything in the file at this point, because it wasn't my business until I was appointed," Woodall said. "Obviously I won't make any decision until I review the case and all the issues involved."

Hunter's lawyer, Wade Barber, declined to comment, saying his client was no longer a party in the case.

Raleigh lawyer Philip R. Isley represents Andrew Young, his wife Cheri and their lawyers Robert Elliot and David Pishko, all of whom face potential criminal charges. Isley declined to comment Friday on the issues in the case, but said his clients hope for a speedy decision.

"This is sort of the last chapter in this whole affair, and we'd like that chapter to be closed," Isley said.

By Michael Biesecker, The Associated Press,

Source: The Fox News

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Housing Fund won't disclose lawyer invoices; agency has paid $330K in legal costs

The West Virginia Housing Development Fund doesn't want to say how it has spent $330,000 on outside legal fees during an ongoing federal investigation of state Treasurer John Perdue, who serves on the state housing agency's board.

The Housing Development Fund is keeping secret months of billing records that would show what individual private attorneys are charging and what they're doing.

Housing agency executives said releasing the lawyers' invoices "would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy," according to a letter sent to the Gazette. The newspaper requested the bills under the state Freedom of Information Act.

"The Housing Fund's legal invoices contain work performed by our attorneys and is therefore considered attorney-client privileged and a permitted exemption under FOIA," said Erica Boggess, the agency's acting executive director.

Last month, Boggess said the Housing Development Fund has spent nearly $25,000 for legal advice on whether the agency should release documents in response to public records requests.

Asked last week whether Housing Development Fund executives consulted with outside lawyers on whether to release the attorneys' bills, Boggess said, "The Housing Development Fund is always concerned with full compliance of any FOIA request. We consult with legal counsel, as needed, regarding any FOIA."

In a recent email to the Housing Development Fund, Gazette lawyer Pat McGinley disputed the agency's assertion that the invoices could be withheld.

McGinley said the Housing Development Fund could have redacted, or blacked out, any confidential communications between agency executives and outside lawyers. But McGinley said the agency didn't have the right to withhold entire invoices, which would disclose such information as lawyers' hourly rates and payments to individual attorneys.

"In my view the assertion of the personal privacy exemption is frivolous based upon West Virginia FOIA case law," wrote McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University. "A public body has an overarching obligation to disclose the amounts and purposes of the expenditure of taxpayer monies, and the [West Virginia] FOIA mandates that claims of exemption underlying withholding of such information be narrowly construed."

The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office are investigating Perdue's sale of an 11-acre property in Mason County to Charleston developer Douglas E. Pauley. Perdue serves on the Housing Fund's board of directors.

In December 2010, the agency awarded Pauley a $3.67 million federal stimulus grant. Pauley paid Perdue $215,000 for the property, located about six miles north of Point Pleasant. Perdue has said he did nothing wrong.

In recent months, Housing Development Fund officials have been responding to federal prosecutors' subpoenas and questions.

Boggess has said that the agency paid the bulk of its legal fees to the Jackson Kelly law firm, whose Charleston attorneys have been advising agency administrators and in-house lawyers during the federal investigation.

Other payments went to six private lawyers representing agency staff members and Perdue's top aide, Danny Ellis, who attends Housing Development Fund board meeting as Perdue's delegate.

In addition to Ellis, the outside lawyers are representing former executive director Joe Hatfield and four agency administrators: Sherry Bossie, Mary Mason, Michelle Wilshire and Nancy Parsons.

Boggess said Ellis, Hatfield and the four employees are potential witnesses, not targets of the investigation.

The Gazette requested the outside lawyers' billing records on April 19, after Boggess told the newspaper that Jackson Kelly had charged $24,750 for "FOIA matters" since the federal investigation became public in late October.

The Housing Development Fund responded to the Gazette's FOIA letter on March 24 - nearly five weeks after the request. State law requires agency's to respond to such public records requests within five days.

Agency executives have declined to disclose Jackson Kelly's hourly rate for legal services.

The Housing Fund has received at least 15 FOIA requests since October. The Gazette filed 13 of those request.

If Jackson Kelly charged $350 an hour - a typical rate in Charleston - the firm's lawyers would have had to bill for 70 hours for the cost of the 15 FOIA requests to total $24,750.

Boggess has said Jackson Kelly lawyers charged the agency for advice on whether releasing documents would interfere with the federal investigation.

The newspaper has contacted Jackson Kelly lawyers about the legal fees, but the Housing Development Fund's in-house general counsel, Tracy Webb, has instructed the attorneys not to speak to the Gazette about the bills.

Since October, the Housing Development Fund has released hundreds of pages of records to the Gazette, but also denied numerous documents, citing exemptions to FOIA law.

The agency has previously released invoices from out-of-state lawyers hired by the agency for advice on other legal matters.

By Eric Eyre,, 304-348-4869

Source: The Charleston Gazette

Deal is close in Colo. listeria lawsuits

Lawyers involved in lawsuits against a Colorado farm identified as the source of a deadly listeria outbreak last fall said Monday they were close to a settlement in the case.

The lawsuits were filed by people who were sickened or who had a family member die after the nationwide outbreak involving cantaloupes killed 30 people.

Attorneys for both sides said the deal could be finalized by fall.

"I would say we are very close," said Jim Markus, an attorney for defendant Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo.

Bill Marler, a lawyer for 39 of the plaintiffs, said the settlement also could include a company that manufactures and imports food-processing equipment and a firm that did a safety audit of the farm.

The possible settlement currently being discussed would set up a victims' fund of roughly $4 million, including $2 million from Jensen Farms' insurer, Marler said. The remainder would come from the insurers of the equipment company and the safety auditor, he said.

The plaintiffs might also pursue claims against others involved in the distribution and sale of the cantaloupes, he said.

"There's frankly plenty of responsibility to go around," he said. "The chain of distribution from the farm to the retailer bears responsibility for producing and selling that food."

Marler said at least seven other lawsuits have been filed by other attorneys or victims representing themselves.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in December that 30 people died, 146 people were sickened, and one woman suffered a miscarriage. Marler believes 36 deaths can be attributed to the outbreak.

CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said the agency is standing by the death toll of 30, but it could be revised if more evidence is presented.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has said dirty water on a floor, and old, hard-to-clean equipment probably were to blame for the outbreak.

It was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years. The CDC said cases were reported in 28 states.

Jensen Farms filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, and listeria lawsuits against the company cannot go forward until the bankruptcy judge clears the way, Marler said.

"I'd like it done sooner than later," said Tammie Palmer of Colorado Springs, whose 71-year-old husband, Charles, was diagnosed with listeria after eating cantaloupe last fall.

The Palmers are suing Jensen Farms and are represented by Marler.

"My husband's not getting any better," she said. "Will he ever recover from it? I doubt it."

The plaintiffs in Marler's case allege that Pepper Equipment Corp. of Montrose, Colo., modified and then installed used equipment for Jensen Farms.

John Grund, an attorney for Pepper, confirmed that settlement talks are under way but declined to say how much the company's insurer might contribute.

Grund said the company denies any responsibility for the outbreak but explained a settlement would be "the sensible way to go."

The food safety auditing company named in Marler's lawsuit, Bio Food Safety of Rio Hondo, Texas, didn't immediately return phone calls or an email seeking comment.

Eric Jensen, co-owner of Jensen Farms, declined to comment on whether Jensen Farms was responsible for the outbreak.

He said the farm didn't plant any crops this year because of its finances. He hopes that once the bankruptcy and lawsuits are settled, he can resume farming, possibly growing cantaloupes again.

"It's going to take time to get through all of this," he said. "Have to take a look at what we have left and figure it out from there."

Marler said the projected $4 million settlement fund isn't enough to fairly compensate the victims. He said his clients have amassed a total of nearly $8 million in medical bills, and they deserve more for pain and suffering and for future medical bills.

By Dan Elliott,

Source: The BusinessWeek

Monday, June 4, 2012

Legal defense - picking a criminal attorney

One would think that handful of folks wake up every single day, concerned about whether or not they will commit a crime, but the truth is that laws are broken all the time and most men and women don't give it a 2nd thought. Sadly, punishment for committing a crime is never ever pleasant to deal with, and men and women sabotage their odds of exoneration, merely simply because they don't know their rights. If you've recently been accused of committing a crime in San Antonio, and are awaiting a court hearing, it is important that you know how to decide on representation for your case.

The crucial thing to don't forget about selecting a criminal lawyer in San Antonio is that they should have time to give you their full interest and allocate time getting to know the ins and outs that led you to currently being component of a criminal investigation. If there is 1 person that you really should be in a position to tell all the particulars of your story to without having holding back, it ought to be your criminal lawyer.

Before you commence your search, it is also critical that you are aware of what sets a high quality San Antonio criminal attorney apart from any other lawyers that you may possibly find on the world wide web. The coveted distinction is that criminal lawyers spend most of their profession in their state, giving them important expertise with state and federal laws as they apply to criminal situations.

People who are not from the state of Texas, but are facing expenses in the San Antonio court system, you might be considering that it would be smarter to retain the services of a attorney from your home town. However, if you're not initially from San Antonio, but have turn into mixed up with criminal activity there, it is crucial that you seek a San Antonio criminal attorney or regional attorney from the city or surrounding places since they will be significantly a lot more familiar with the judge and prosecutors that will decide your case.

If you just want to get this total mess over with, you might be tempted to just employ the 1st attorney that provides you a realistic rate, but remember that deciding on a criminal lawyer is 1 undesirable choice you can't afford to make. It really is probable that getting these criminal fees opened your eyes to other poor decisions you've been generating in your life, and the only way that you're going to get a 2nd chance to recognize your future is by hiring a criminal attorney that is invested in obtaining you the justice you deserve.

When attempting to choose amongst criminal defense attorneys in the San Antonio area, it's important that you do not just presume that they are a good option since they have a nice internet site or because they run Television commercials. Inquire inquiries about whether or not they have encounter with cases like yours, and what the outcome of those instances were. Make positive that there are no language barriers or situation tactics mentioned that you do not really realize. You and your attorney should be on the very same page so that you can present a profitable situation.

By Criminal Lawyer San Antonio,

Source: The Bakersfield Voice

Attorney general agrees to seek DNA testing in 1993 Pampa slaying

Reversing its decade-long objection to testing that Death Row inmate Hank Skinner says could prove his innocence, the Texas attorney general's office filed an advisory with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking to test DNA in the case.

"Upon further consideration, the State believes that the interest of justice would best be served by DNA testing the evidence requested by Skinner and by testing additional items identified by the state," lawyers for the state wrote in the advisory.

Skinner, now 50, was convicted in 1995 of the strangulation and beating death of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and the stabbing deaths of her two adult sons on New Year's Eve 1993 in Pampa. Skinner maintains that he is innocent and says he was unconscious on the couch at the time of the killings, intoxicated from a mixture of vodka and codeine.

Rob Owen, co-director of the University of Texas at Austin's Capital Punishment Clinic, said he is pleased that the state "finally appears willing to work with us to make that testing a reality."

The details of the testing, he said, will still need to be arranged to ensure that the evidence is properly handled and identified.

"Texans expect accuracy in this death penalty case, and the procedures to be employed must ensure their confidence in the outcome," he said in an e-mailed statement. "We look forward to cooperating with the State to achieve this DNA testing as promptly as possible."

State lawyers have opposed the testing, arguing that it could not prove Skinner's innocence and that it would encourage other guilty inmates to delay justice by seeking tests. But the state reversed its course June 1 and has prepared a joint order to allow the tests.

Since 2000, Skinner has asked the courts to allow testing on evidence that was not analyzed for his original trial, including a rape kit, material from Busby's fingernails, sweat and hair from a man's jacket, a bloody towel and knives. Owen told the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in a hearing last month that if DNA testing on all the evidence points to someone other than Skinner, it could create reasonable doubt about his client's guilt.

The advisory was filed a month after that hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in which the nine judges grilled attorneys for the state about their continued resistance to the testing after a spate of DNA exonerations in Texas. In Texas, at least 45 inmates have been exonerated based on DNA evidence.

"You really ought to be absolutely sure before you strap a person down and kill him," Judge Michael Keasler said at the hearing.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, praised the attorney general's action. Legislators approved a bill last year that Ellis wrote amending the state's post-conviction DNA testing law to allow for such analysis in cases like Skinner's.

By Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune

Source: The Fort Worth Star Telegram

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vilma's lawyer challenges ledger

The attorney for suspended New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma says a ledger of under-the-table cash bonuses and fines for Saints players shows no proof of bounties placed on targeted opponents.

Lawyer Peter Ginsberg said the leaking of the ledger to the media shows how "misguided and irresponsible" NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been in handling the bounty investigation of the Saints.

People familiar with the ledger told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Friday that the document indicates payments of $1,000 for plays called "cart-offs" and $400 for "whacks," as well as $100 fines for mental errors.

Ginsberg asserted that the commissioner interviewed the person who kept the ledger, and knows "the `whacks' and `cart-off,' though regrettably named, were descriptions of good, clean, legal plays, and that any dirty or penalized play resulted in fines."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said he had no comment on the latest statement by Ginsberg, who is representing Vilma both in the player's appeal of his season-long suspension as well as in a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. The defamation lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans and Goodell has until July 5 to respond to it.

The NFL has suspended four players - all of them either current or former Saints - in connection with the bounty probe. Vilma was suspended for all of the 2012 season, Green Bay defensive end Anthony Hargrove was suspended eight games, Saints defensive end Will Smith was suspended four games, and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita three. All four players have appealed their suspensions.

Ginsberg's statement about the ledger is the latest of several instances in which players or their representatives have debated the significance of evidence gathered by the NFL in its probe of the bounty program that the league said ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran from 2009 to 2011.

The NFL, in its initial report, highlighted an excerpt from an email in which an associate of Saints head coach Sean Payton said "put me down for $5,000" on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. However, marketing agent Mike Ornstein, the author of the email, said the comment - which was part of an email sent from federal prison to a team spokesman and forwarded to the coaching staff - was part of a running joke he had with Williams, dating to when the Minnesota Vikings suggested the Saints had placed a bounty on then-quarterback Brett Favre in the 2010 NFC title game.

In May, Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney hired by the NFL, said a signed declaration by Hargrove confirmed the existence of a bounty program, and that Hargrove was instructed to lie about it - and did lie about it - when first questioned by league investigators. But Hargrove later said the NFL mischaracterized his statement, which the AP also obtained. The declaration does not go into specifics about what Hargrove knew or did not know about a bounty program in New Orleans, and it does not explicitly say that he lied.

The NFL has not discussed the ledger in any of its official reports or public comments, but the document's existence appears to support the league's contention that the Saints operated an improper pay-for-performance program. Whether it confirms that actual bounties were placed on targeted opponents is not yet clear, as the document has not been made public.

"The truth is that Jonathan Vilma gave no money, incentive or encouragement ever - not at any time in his eight-year career - to injure or knock out of any game any player with a dirty or unsportsmanlike hit," Ginsberg said in a statement. "The facts are plain and simple. During the three seasons in question, Jonathan Vilma was one of the least penalized players not only on the Saints, but in the NFL."

According to STATS, LLC, Vilma has played in 42 games since 2009 and has been penalized three times in that span. Two-thirds of NFL defensive players who played in 40 or more games during that same period were penalized more than Vilma.

By The Associated Press

Source: The La Crosse Tribune

Lawyers probing oil boom impact on ND legal system

North Dakota's Bar Association plans to explore the impact of the state's oil boom on access to the legal system.

The Bar Association represents the state's lawyers. President Kristi Pettit Venhuizen (PEH’-tiht van-HY-zhen) says oil development has meant more work for the courts and attorneys alike.

Venhuizen says it's harder to find lawyers for family law and criminal defense work, and it's taking longer to get hearings in civil cases.

A task force is holding meetings in Bismarck, Dickinson, Williston and Minot later this month to gather information. Venhuizen says the data will be used to suggest ways the Legislature can help ease the problems of the justice system.

Bismarck attorney Jack McDonald is serving as the task force's chairman. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is one of its members.

By The Jamestown Sun

Source: The Jamestown Sun

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Prosecutor's suspension was unprecedented

A county prosecutor's monthlong suspension based on unproven allegations that he was unable to work was unwarranted and unprecedented and similar actions are unlikely to be taken against Iowa attorneys in the future, his lawyer said Friday.

Chief Justice Mark Cady suspended the law license of Appanoose County Attorney Richard Scott without a hearing on May 2 after an attorney disciplinary board warned that Scott's failure to do his job posed "a substantial threat of serious harm to the public" and was letting criminals walk free. Cady said Scott was unable to "discharge his professional responsibilities" and the suspension had to take effect immediately because of urgent circumstances that were not explained.

But after the Iowa Supreme Court held a hearing and heard evidence Tuesday, the court issued a decision Wednesday that lifted Scott's suspension and let him return to work under additional oversight for 90 days. The court said it was undisputed that Scott was not spending enough time on his official duties and that some criminal cases were dismissed as a result, but the disciplinary board failed to provide evidence that Scott couldn't work.

"They didn't present any evidence because there isn't any," Scott's lawyer, David L. Brown of Des Moines, said in an interview Friday. "There is no grounds to say he is in any way incapacitated, incompetent or impaired. He's very bright, very intelligent. He has no issues that impacts his ability to serve as an elected public official."

Brown said Scott, who'd been in office since 2008, acknowledged that he made mistakes juggling a heavy caseload as the only prosecutor in a small county with a high crime rate. He said Scott had already returned to his position and was determined to prevent similar mistakes and "be an even better county attorney."

The board claimed Scott had not tried a felony, drunken driving or aggravated misdemeanor case since he was appointed in 2008, reaching plea agreements or dismissing charges instead. It listed six misdemeanor cases that were dismissed because Scott wasn't available, including charges of assault, domestic abuse and trespassing. A seventh case involving a drug suspect was dismissed because Scott didn't file an indictment by the deadline, which resulted in the man sitting in jail for 126 days before being released.

The suspension for a "temporary disability" used against Scott is typically reserved for lawyers struggling with alcohol, drugs or mental illness. Observers can only remember one another time regulators used the provision against a county attorney, an official who turned out to have a brain injury several years ago.

Brown said regulators may have made an incorrect assumption after receiving an allegation against Scott from a local judge.

Regulator Charles Harrington said Wednesday the board acted in the public's interest and the factors behind Scott's subpar performance were somewhat of a mystery.

With Scott suspended, a judge had appointed neighboring Davis County Attorney Rick Lynch to oversee prosecutions in Appanoose County. Lynch will supervise Scott during his 90-day probationary period.

Brown said regulators would likely be more cautious before exercising their authority in the future.

"I would be very surprised if that process ever happens again. I couldn't help notice people saying this was an unusual case. Unusual? It's unprecedented. I think everybody might have learned something through that process," he said. "Procedurally, you can realize this was someone who isn't just an elected public official. He's a licensed member of the bar. As a consequence, he didn't really do anything for a month. As a practicing lawyer, he couldn't."

By The Associated Press

Source: The Muscatine Journal

Lawyers giving judges cash typical, troubling

Two bottles of Scotch and plenty of beer.

A gaggle of probate attorneys gathered at a law office to drink and discuss the re-election of a probate judge.

And finally, the judge himself, dropping by with a list of names of other attorneys who could be persuaded to contribute money to his re-election campaign.

That scene unfolded in 2010. It was recalled this week in a Bexar County courtroom.

Intriguing? Yes.

Troubling? Perhaps.

Unusual? Not at all.

Attorney Phil Ross on Thursday tried to convince Judge David Peeples it was unusual enough to require the recusal of Judge Tom Rickhoff in a guardianship case.

At the hearing, Ross accused Rickhoff of unfairly favoring Mark Stanton Smith, the attorney at whose office the lawyers had met to discuss bundling cash for Rickhoff.

Smith is representing a bank in a case related to the guardianship of Mary Dahlman, Ross' client.

Peeples, however, was correct to stop Ross from delving too deeply into these details. Before he'd consider the fairness of Rickhoff's rulings, the judge would first have to agree that the relationship between Smith and Rickhoff was inappropriate.

As Peeples put it: Before Ross could prove there's fire, he would first have to prove there's smoke.

So Ross called Smith to the stand, asking him to describe his relationship with Rickhoff.

The attorney said he and the judge were not close friends. They'd been to lunch three times. He'd contributed money to Rickhoff's re-election campaign.

"It's a typical thing that I do to the judges that are in the courts," Smith said.

With relish, Ross reminded Smith about the cash-bundling meeting at his law office.

Smith admitted there'd been two in 2010, others in 2006. The attorneys had agreed to call about 20 people each and solicit cash for the judge's re-election.

At one meeting, Rickhoff had shown up with U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith.

"There was a lot of laughing, joking, having a good time," Mark Smith said.

He added, "The idea that you have that Judge Rickhoff is somehow favoring me or my clients is baloney."

Ross then called William Bailey, an attorney also present at the cash-bundling meetings.

Last year, Rickhoff appointed Bailey to decide whether Dahlman, Ross' client, was incapacitated and unable to manage a $20 million trust.

Bailey concluded that she was; Rickhoff appointed Bailey as her guardian, a decision that Ross says benefits Bailey and Mark Smith.

On the stand, Bailey grew indignant at the notion that his fundraising for Rickhoff had affected Rickhoff's judgment in the courtroom.

He burst into laughter when Ross asked, "How long did the meeting last with the beer-drinking and the whiskey-drinking?"

Later, Bailey said, "We were all concerned about the re-election of Judge Rickhoff because he's such an outstanding judge."

Before ruling whether Ross had proved smoke, Peeples seemed aware he was considering an issue that far transcended one judge.

"If you are correct," Peeples said, "potentially, wouldn't (this affect) every judge in cases involving lawyers that help them significantly in their campaigns, more than just contributing money, contributing a big sum of money, work for them, send out letters, work the poll for a morning on election day, put out the yard signs, all these judges that got some of these lawyers in their court?"

Peeples denied the motion for recusal.

But this was not a denial of smoke. It was an acknowledgment, rather, of so much smoke in the courtrooms of elected judges across Texas, it's impossible to find any fire.

It's also another reason that Texas needs to find a new way to pick judges.

By Brian Chasnoff, Express-News columnist,

Friday, June 1, 2012

Mandatory bar membership for lawyers opposed

In Iowa, law school graduates can hang up a shingle and take cases as soon as they pass the state bar exam and obtain a $185 license.

In Nebraska, it's more complicated.

The Cornhusker State, like 32 other states and the District of Columbia, requires membership in a state bar association to be a lawyer.

Mandatory membership in the Nebraska State Bar Association has been a 75-year tradition. It costs $335 a year to join, which includes $60 forwarded to the State Supreme Court to finance a team that investigates and disciplines bad lawyers.

But Nebraska's so-called "unified" bar is under attack.

Leading the assault is State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, an attorney for two decades.

After an unsuccessful attempt to pass a bill in the Legislature that would make bar association membership voluntary, Lautenbaugh petitioned the Nebraska Supreme Court this spring to make that change.

If that doesn't work, the senator has promised to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

"We're a right-to-work state. I shouldn't have to be part of a lawyers union to practice my trade," Lautenbaugh said.

The effort has created a hot debate among Nebraska's 6,524 active attorneys, and already has prompted the bar association to review whether it is improperly taking political positions on issues outside its scope "to improve the administration of justice."

Warren Whitted Jr., an Omaha attorney and current president of the Nebraska State Bar Association, said he believes the bar has a role to play in the legislative process and has a comprehensive and constitutional review process to select issues on which to take a stand.

If the state bar became a voluntary organization, Whitted said costs would be shifted to taxpayers and court fees from membership dues. The bar association, he said, would have less impact on issues that impact lawyers and the public, such as court funding, distribution of judges and discouraging frivolous lawsuits.

"As the Nebraska State Bar Association, we can hold ourselves out as speaking for the 6,500 active lawyers. People listen when we speak," he said. "I would think we'd become much more politically driven (if it becomes a voluntary organization). We'd be taking positions on issues that would be much more controversial."

The Supreme Court is taking public comment through today on the idea through its website and via mail. A public hearing may follow before the court renders its opinion.

Of the 41 comments received by Wednesday, 25 opposed Lautenbaugh's petition, with 14 backing the senator and two neutral.

That comes after the bar association's Executive Council unanimously voted to reject the idea, and the bar's 90-member House of Delegates voted 58-4 to oppose it.

At a hearing in April, however, more than one attorney complained that the bar poorly communicates with its rural members and has experienced "mission creep" in its activities.

Until the 1990s, the bar association oversaw attorneys who investigated alleged wrongdoings by lawyers and sought disciplinary steps through the Nebraska Supreme Court. But the court took over those duties, and some lawyers, such as Lautenbaugh, say the bar, with its 19 employees and $3 million-plus budget, has expanded beyond its primary job, which is to conduct the bar exam and screen applicants.

"I don't think they've been good stewards of the money we send them," the senator said.

Lautenbaugh also said the bar weighs in on legislation that it shouldn't, and doesn't represent the viewpoints of all attorneys.

The senator sharply criticized Whitted this spring when he testified against a bill while three bar employees and two paid lobbyists for the bar sat in the audience. The bill was introduced by Lautenbaugh to redirect some court fees paid in Omaha back to private defense attorneys in Douglas County rather than sending it to the Lincoln-based Commission on Public Advocacy, a state-funded office of defense attorneys who take on major felony cases.

That office regularly takes cases in Lancaster County but rarely does so in Douglas County, setting up an effort to keep the money in Omaha — and generating a spat between Omaha and Lincoln lawyers.

Lautenbaugh said the bar should not have injected itself in such a local dispute. Whitted defended the bar's involvement.

"We took the view that people deserve adequate legal representation on major felony cases," he said.

In the end, the bar won, and Lautenbaugh withdrew the bill. The bar later testified in support of a different Lautenbaugh bill — one that would limit frivolous lawsuits — but the senator said that testimony also was outside the bar's scope.

Whitted said he realizes people can disagree, but it is important that an organization representing lawyers weighs in on matters important to them.

He said an extensive vetting process is undertaken before the bar takes a position.

This year, for instance, the bar's paid lobbyists, Bill Mueller and Katie Zulkoski, identified 118 bills that they felt were relevant. Those bills were reviewed by a 45-member legislative committee, then the Executive Committee and then the House of Delegates.

In the end, the bar took positions on 37 bills. Whitted said that Nebraska is far from "the fringe," pointing out that some state bars have taken positions on controversial social issues, including same-sex marriage and nuclear power.

The bar also allows individual attorneys to opt out of financing its lobbying activities, redirecting their dues to other activities and reducing what is paid to lobbyists by that amount.

About 1,100 attorneys take that option, which Whitted said brings the bar in compliance with a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave bar association members the free-speech right to not financially support a position with which they disagree.

Lautenbaugh said the opt-out provision is insufficient, and the Nebraska bar isn't fully complying with the court's ruling.

"They don't speak for me," he said, adding that the voluntary bar association in Iowa appears to work just fine.

Iowa has about 9,000 lawyers, of which about 91 percent are members of the Iowa State Bar Association.

There are some powerful incentives to join the Iowa bar, which costs $210 a year. Those include free use of a legal research computer program called Fastcase, and free use of an online legal document library called IowaDocs.

"It's a real benefit to members," said Steve Boeckman of the voluntary Iowa organization, which has three fewer employees than Nebraska's bar.

Whitted, the Nebraska State Bar Association president, pointed out that many of the lawyer-related activities conducted by the Iowa Supreme Court are undertaken in Nebraska by its bar association, under orders from the Nebraska Supreme Court.

He said that if Nebraska's bar became voluntary, the State Supreme Court would have to take over those activities, which include commissions that tackle the unauthorized practice of law, treatment of minorities in the legal system, and reimbursing people who lost money due to unscrupulous attorneys. All are currently funded by the bar association.

The Nebraska bar also provides a free, online legal search function to its members, and because it is a mandatory bar, can extend services to even the most rural areas of the state.

"To pay $275 a year to practice law is a small price to pay," Whitted said.

By Paul Hammel, World-Herald Bureau

Source: The Omaha World Herald

Mosque construction ongoing, lawyers debate ruling

Construction is continuing on a new mosque outside of Murfreesboro as attorneys debate the implications of a judge's ruling that voided approval of the site plan.

Joe Brandon Jr., one of the attorneys for the mosque opponents, said he believes the ruling means construction on the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro must halt. On Wednesday, Brandon filed an order with the court that included an injunction to that effect. The order does not become final until signed by the judge.

On Thursday, County Attorney Jim Cope said he will contest the order because he does not believe it accurately reflects the judge's ruling.

"The judge didn't mention an injunction," Cope said. "If (Brandon) wants an injunction, he needs to bring a lawsuit against the mosque."

The lawsuit named county boards and officials as defendants, but not the Islamic center.

Cope said he plans to file his objection to Brandon's order, along with a competing order, before the weekend. The judge can then choose to sign one of the orders, write his own order or hold a hearing to resolve the issue.

Cope said the county has not yet decided whether it will appeal the judge's ruling that officials provided insufficient public notice for the May 2010 Planning Commission meeting where the mosque was approved.

No public hearing was required to approve the site plan for the 52,000 square-foot mosque and auxiliary buildings, which was presented and voted on at a single commission meeting. The same would not have been true of plans for a large commercial building, but Rutherford County has special laws in place to facilitate the approval of houses of worship.

County attorneys argued at trial that officials did all that was required of them by law to advertise the meeting when they placed an announcement in a free weekly newspaper, the Murfreesboro Post, with no agenda - the same process used to announce all county meetings.

Chancellor Robert Corlew's Tuesday ruling, while implying that the process might be sufficient for routine matters, stated that it was insufficient for the mosque approval given the intense public interest it has garnered.

Mosque opponents have held rallies to protest the new building and accused members of the congregation of having ties to terrorists, although they have provided no proof.

Local Muslims counter that they have lived, worked and worshipped in the county for decades without causing problems for anyone.

The controversy has made national and international news.

Construction has been ongoing over the year-and-a-half the court case has dragged on, and the main worship space is nearly complete. The new building will replace the mosque's current space in an industrial park, which the congregation has outgrown.

By Travis Loller, The Associated Press

Source: The Kingsport Times-News