The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday suspended for one year the law license of an attorney whose emails to Jim Tressel triggered an ongoing scandal and NCAA investigation that cost the football coach his job at Ohio State University.
At issue was whether Columbus attorney Christopher Cicero violated professional rules of conduct that prohibit revealing information from meetings with a client or a prospective client.
The 5-2 court decision followed the recommendation of a disciplinary board that argued Cicero wrongly discussed interviews with tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife, a potential client. However, the court overruled the board’s recommendation for a six-month suspension.
Cicero sent emails to Tressel in April 2010, warning him that players were selling memorabilia or trading them for tattoos. The email traffic sparked the scandal and ended Tressel’s Ohio State tenure.
An NCAA investigation also led to a bowl ban this year, reductions in scholarships and the loss of Ohio State’s $389,000 share of the Big Ten bowl pot a year ago. The entire 2010 season also was vacated.
Ohio State just completed a 12-0 season and is ranked No. 4 in the AP poll.
Justice Judith Lanzinger said the case went to the heart of the importance of confidentiality between a prospective client and an attorney.
”Prospective clients trust that their confidences will be protected when they engage in an initial consultation with an attorney,” Lanzinger wrote. ”Cicero’s almost immediate dissemination of the detailed information that Rife provided on April 15 directly violated that trust.”
Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Terrence O’Donnell dissented, saying they would have imposed a six-month suspension.
”Cicero’s intentions were not for personal aggrandizement or personal gain, as found by the majority, but were to alert the coach about misconduct by his players that could affect the team,” Stratton wrote.
”His request that such information be held confidential does not support the notion that he was trying to seek fame,” she said.
Cicero’s lawyer said he was disappointed with the decision, saying he and his client had considered even a six-month suspension ”a little harsh.”
”We ended up losing for a year a really, really great lawyer who practices in a difficult area – felony criminal law,” said attorney John Gonzales.
He didn’t know Cicero’s plans for the year, adding they hadn’t expected the decision so soon.
Cicero met with Rife on April 2, 2010, according to court documents, and again 13 days later to discuss whether Cicero would represent him in a federal drug trafficking case, according to a complaint against him by the Disciplinary Counsel of the Ohio Supreme Court.
Cicero, an Ohio State football player in the early 1980s, denied meeting with Rife on April 2. He said the two did meet on April 15, 2010, with the goal of confirming that Rife’s partner, a former client of Cicero, wasn’t involved with drug dealing or memorabilia sales.
Rife’s house had been raided April 1 by federal drug investigators and Cicero wanted to know if Joseph Epling, his client and Rife’s business partner, was involved in the case.
”Eddie Rife was never going to be my client in this case at all,” Cicero told a three-member disciplinary panel at the Ohio Supreme Court last year. ”I saw him as an ally and resource for Mr. Epling. That’s how I viewed Mr. Rife’s purpose in my office.”
Rife pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering last year and was sentenced to three years in prison.
It was emails Cicero sent to Tressel in April 2010, warning him that players were selling memorabilia or trading them for tattoos, that helped launch the scandal.
In those emails, Cicero seemed to make it clear that he may have taken on Rife as a client.
”If he retains me, and he may, I will try to get these items back,” Cicero wrote in an April 16, 2010, email.
”I have to sit tight and wait to see if he retains me, but at least he came in last night to do a face to face with me,” Cicero wrote later that day.
Cicero and his attorneys argued the emails sent to Tressel were only meant to warn the coach about his players’ actions and shouldn’t be read as a breach of confidentiality, since -they argued – Rife was not a client.
Ohio’s legal conduct rules generally prohibit attorneys from divulging any information they received from someone who might be a prospective client.
News of the memorabilia sales emerged in December 2010. In March 2011, the university discovered that Tressel had known about the sales since the previous April and said nothing. That was a violation of both NCAA rules and Tressel’s contract, which required the prompt reporting of any knowledge of such player infractions. Tressel resigned under pressure in May 2011.