Lawyer who told disciplinary commission ‘I politely dare you’ faces complaint

An Indianapolis attorney who responded to a grievance against him with a message to the disciplinary commission saying “nobody can successfully attack my moral character, and I politely dare you to even try” has been hit with a formal disciplinary complaint.

The disciplinary complaint filed in July against Michael C. Steele accuses the northside solo attorney of “an effort to interfere with the revelation of attorney misconduct.” The case stems from an acrimonious personal relationship that ended with Steele suing his ex-girlfriend, then being slapped with a felony stalking charge that ultimately was dismissed.

“I did nothing wrong in the first place,” Steele told Indiana Lawyer in a phone interview. He said his criticism of the commission stemmed from its failure to bring a formal complaint against the attorney who represents his ex after Steele had filed a grievance with the commission against that lawyer.

The commission’s formal complaint against Steele involves his actions in the suit he filed against his ex. She had obtained a protective order against him before Steele sued her last July. Days later, Steele was charged with felony stalking and misdemeanor intimidation and harassment counts. Those criminal charges were dismissed in Hamilton Superior Court in April 2019.

Steele insists he’s innocent, and his suit against his ex claimed defamation, malicious prosecution, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other causes, and included a litany of highly personal allegations against her. As of this week, only the defamation counts remained as the court held under advisement a motion to dismiss those counts. Steele is representing himself in that case, court records show.

Steele’s ex-girlfriend, who Indiana Lawyer is not naming, retained attorney Zaki Ali to represent her. The commission says in its complaint that on Dec. 22, 2018, Steele emailed Ali, stating: “Both protective orders and both bar complaints withdrawn by Friday. Criminal charges dismissed outright by January 3. Then we can discuss terms.”

“I would never talk about settlement (of his suit against his ex) until those matters were gone,” Steele said in explaining what he meant by “terms.”

The commission said Steele’s action violated Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d) by engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. Steele has not yet formally replied to the disciplinary complaint. But he told IL that his grievance alleged Ali, whom he also has sued pro se in Hamilton Superior Court, suborned perjury, obstructed justice and forged documents, among other things, in order to instigate the filing of criminal charges against him.

Ali in a phone interview rejected Steele’s claims, and he said his biggest concern was protecting Steele’s ex. He said Steele’s allegations against him in the grievance Steele filed “are completely false, and that’s why the disciplinary commission found them unsubstantiated and dismissed the complaint on its face.”

“… My entire interaction with Mr. Steele has been like nothing I have ever encountered in my 20 years of practice,” Ali said. He called the allegations Steele has leveled at him “completely bizarre, and it’s below the level of expectations that we would expect of members of the bar.”

Steele’s suit against his ex, for instance, includes multiple allegations regarding her purported sex life. At one point, for instance, he asserts in the suit that his ex “engaged in sexual activities of a group nature with third parties.” Steele also alleges his ex, using a process called steganography, sent him photos secretly encrypted with pornographic images invisible to the naked eye. His suit against her even includes expert analysis of various photos, but the expert makes no such claim in the expert exhibit Steele filed.

In the case against his ex, Steele also traveled to New Hampshire to depose the neighbor of a bed and breakfast where he and his ex had quarreled, leading to their breakup. The ex contends such actions are intended to drive up litigation costs she’s forced to defend against; Steele denies he’s abusing court processes.

In addition to Steele’s ex and Ali, Steele also has named his ex’s employer as a defendant in civil litigation.

“I’m completely exhausted with this guy,” Ali said. “It just a barrage of … unsubstantiated allegations and misplaced feelings is all I can say.”

In court filings, Steele’s ex asked for the lawsuit against her to be dismissed as “as abuse of process in retaliation for a misguided belief of infidelity derived of his compromised mental state.” The ex also asked the court to award her damages for Steele’s initiating the suit and serving it on nonparties — including members of her family — for the sake of embarrassing her.

But in insisting that the commission wrongly rejected his complaint against Ali, Steele said, “I felt at that point, to not have this topic come up and come to the attention of the Indiana Supreme Court, would be intolerable for all Indiana lawyers.”

The commission notes in listing aggravating factors against Steele some of the choice words he had for executive director G. Michael Witte. Among them, the complaint says Steele wrote the following in emails to Witte and/or commission staff:

  • “Mr. Witte is obviously a buffoon … Whether I’m charged or not, I don’t care. I much prefer that you do charge me. The fact that (Ali) got an automatic pass is testament to the impotence of your agency under current leadership, and I’m not living my oath if I don’t speak out loudly.”
  • “I should not make this all about me. I feel badly for the people in your organization who must suffer the embarrassment caused by your incompetence. Like When the FBI got to Mr. (William) Conour before you did, notwithstanding the prior reports you had dismissed. The FBI has a lot to look after in this dangerous world, but you only have one thing to oversee — and still they had to do your work for you. You have violated your duty of competence multiple times, and I wish to see you held accountable.“Now please charge me with something already, if you think you possibly can, and let’s get the facts and evidence in front of actual jurists. I am tired of dealing with a playground weakling who goes back and forth to whichever group he feels strongest in the moment (e.g. Conour, [Carl] Brizzi matters). The truth is stronger than any person, and it’s on my side.”
  • “Mr. Witte — Another gem you’ve decided to back (with the weight of the Indiana Supreme Court). Jesus man, What on Earth do you get paid for … ?”

Steele “lacks remorse for his misconduct,” the commission says in concluding its complaint, and “lacks insight into his misconduct and is unable to separate the civil litigation he is pursuing in Hamilton County from the professional misconduct that has been alleged against him.”

In his interview with Indiana Lawyer, Steele acknowledged that he probably should not have called Witte a buffoon, and he said of his suit against his ex, “Would it have been a better life decision never to sue her? Yes, I agree with that.”

But Steele said he believes his biggest mistake was in “self-reporting” to the commission after his ex threatened to report file a grievance, which she ultimately did.

“As dumb as this notion was,” Steele said, “I thought by actually going to the court, I would have this protection. … I’ve never been more wrong about anything in my life.

“… Part of what it comes down to is what’s your name,” he said of the commission’s process, volunteering that he is the brother of former Indianapolis attorney David Steele, who was disbarred in 2015 for theft from clients and a host of other charges. “I am not my brother.”

Subsequent to his phone interview, Steele forwarded the following statement:

“I stand by my comments, distasteful though they are. I am justifiably outraged by Mr. Witte’s willful disregard for the ethical and criminal violations committed against me by another attorney throughout this saga.

“I neither committed nor attempted to hide any misconduct. To the contrary, I asked multiple times to visit Mr. Witte’s office to answer questions or share further information.

“I will continue to stand up for myself and for the truth in all forums, and will proudly accept any consequences.”

Steele, who has no prior discipline, was admitted to practice in 2002. A section of his law firm website titled “Core Values” reads, “Courtesy and professionalism are often overlooked in today’s litigation environment, but they are the cornerstones of my practice and always will be. Whether dealing with a client, opposing counsel, or the court and its staff, professionalism comes first.”

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