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Editorial: Rule changes still lack needed transparency

March 23, 2016

A proposed overhaul of Admission and Discipline Rule 23 contains some good ideas among the 108 pages of side-by-side comparisons of the old and the new. But the proposals would do little to deprogram the Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission’s culture of confidentiality or boost public confidence in the agency that polices Indiana attorneys.

As the world moves in a digital direction, the rule changes contemplate more e-filing in discipline cases. Verified complaints filed against lawyers should be made available online. Those complaints are public now, but to view them requires a trip to the state government building in Indianapolis to request and examine the paper file. If this is by design, the design is against the public interest and does little to alert Hoosiers to lawyers whose conduct has reached the high bar of jeopardizing their law license.

Unfortunately, nothing in the rules proposes verified complaints be posted online. This is symptomatic of a larger problem.

The commission and its rules embrace confidentiality. It has refused to disclose when it first received complaints that William Conour was stealing from his clients. He stole more than $6 million from 36 victims, yet the commission didn’t act until after he was criminally charged, and then Conour simply resigned.

Sources have said they complained to the commission about Conour – in one case several years before the commission filed a public complaint against him. We’ve formally asked many times how long the commission had complaints about Conour, and the number of complaints it received. The commission invokes confidentiality rules. Again, we requested the number of complaints, dates, and nothing more in arguably the most egregious attorney fraud case in Indiana history. And we were denied.

Simply put, no one knows what the commission knew, and when it knew it, about Conour. It’s a fair question, and an open question, whether failure to act enabled some of Conour’s crimes.

We’ve also asked the commission in the past about the number of grievance investigations open for more than one year. We’re told that, too, is confidential.

The need for confidentiality of grievances against lawyers is undisputed. Many complaints are meritless. But when rules meant to protect lawyers and complaining parties are stretched to protect the commission from scrutiny of its performance, the public is disserved.

These rule changes seem fine, but they could be better. And the rules won’t change what’s practically a law of nature: Public confidence is the price of government confidentiality. Hoosiers – lawyers and non-lawyers – deserve better.•

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