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Brizzi regrets perception damage

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If he had it to do over again, Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi said he wouldn't get involved in a real estate deal with a local criminal defense attorney.

The eight-year prosecutor in the state's largest county spoke with Indiana Lawyer today on the heels of recent reports that have damaged his reputation and hampered his public perception. He denied doing anything illegal or unethical, but said he'd take a different path if there was a chance.

"In hindsight, even if I knew there was nothing illegal or unethical being done, if I had to do it all over I wouldn't do it again," Brizzi said. "This creates an appearance issue that's been distracting, and now I have to disprove a negative. It's hard to recover from that. It's not worth it."

In its April 14-27, 2010, edition Indiana Lawyer reported on the controversy, exploring how the state's legal community is watching and learning from what's unfolding in Marion County.

The issues surfaced in an April 3 article in the Indianapolis Business Journal, which is owned by the parent company of Indiana Lawyer. IBJ reported first that Brizzi intervened last year in a drug case to offer a reduced sentence over objections from law enforcement officers and his own deputy prosecutor. He insisted on a plea deal for accused drug dealer Joseph Mobareki that would be acceptable to Indianapolis criminal defense attorney Paul J. Page. Page is a lawyer at Indianapolis-based Baker Pittman & Page and a Brizzi friend, campaign contributor, and business partner on an Elkhart County real estate deal. According to the IBJ report, Brizzi also ordered his staff to return $10,000 in cash seized from Mobareki, and the money was routed through Page.

Other issues involving Brizzi's past campaign donations have been raised in recent months, raising questions about the general role of attorneys contributing to the political campaigns of judges and prosecutors they might appear before or argue against in court.

While not discussing the merits, other prosecutors and attorneys throughout Indiana said the issues are distracting and are a concern for the entire legal community.

Brizzi admits this situation is a public-perception nightmare, and he's devoted to repairing his own reputation and that of the prosecutor's office. He is in the final months of his second term and isn't running for re-election. So far, Brizzi has rejected calls for his early resignation because of the controversy.

With 45,000 cases a year, Brizzi understands that people will be looking at every case for possible questions or issues. That forces him to be even more careful in how he operates and navigates issues he hasn't faced before, he said.

"This is not a cookie-cutter operation, but I have to take extra care in every case that comes before this office," he said. "You can't put that genie back in the bottle."

Brizzi also said that if he were running again, he wouldn't accept campaign contributions from any defense attorneys who might be in the opposing counsel position at some point. He had to raise about $3 million during his last campaign and some of those contributions came from the defense bar in Marion County, he said.

"If prosecutors and judges are going to accept contributions from those in their courts or legal communities, we have to be able to apply that consistently," he said. "If there's the potential for a question, then it makes sense to not accept them."

A larger issue that perhaps warrants consideration from the Indiana General Assembly concerns state statutes that should be tweaked on the issue of campaign contributions in the legal community. The Indianapolis Bar Association in February created a task force to study the issue of campaign contributions and public confidence within the legal system. The IBA exploration follows a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 129 S. Ct. 2252 (2009) that dealt with judicial campaign contributions and subsequent recusals.

At the same time, Brizzi wondered if it might be time to revisit an issue that's been addressed by Indiana State Bar Association advisory ethical opinion No. 2 from 1982, which says there's no per se prohibition of business ventures between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

But there's a line that must be drawn and Brizzi said he doesn't know where that line should be.

"I don't think it's fair to say that elected prosecutors shouldn't be allowed (to be involved in) any other outside business," he said. "What about owning stock or rental property? Where's the line?"

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