The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission is calling for the suspension of a prominent Indianapolis employment attorney it accused of possessing child pornography in the fallout of a teacher-student sex scandal at Park Tudor High School.
But attorneys for Michael Blickman, the lawyer subject to the disciplinary complaint, say Blickman has already received “the functional equivalent of a public reprimand” via the spread of false information in court filings and media reports.
Blickman and the commission filed proposed hearing officer reports on Friday. The case, In the Matter of Michael A. Blickman, 18S-DI-553, went before hearing officer and Elkhart Senior Judge Terry Shewmaker in September.
The commission in November 2018 accused Blickman of multiple ethical violations related to his representation of Park Tudor as the school learned of and responded to allegations that former boys basketball coach Kyle Cox had engaged in a sexually explicit messaging with a 15-year-old student. Blickman is accused of violations of Indiana Professional Conduct Rules 1.1, 1.2(d), 8.4(b) and 8.4(d).
The facts underlying the disciplinary complaint were discussed at length during the four-day September hearing and were reviewed in the lengthy hearing officer reports proposed by the parties.
In December 2015, the student’s father called a meeting with then-Park Tudor headmaster Matthew Miller to discuss explicit messages, including a video, he found on his daughter’s phone and that he believed to be from Cox, who was also the girl’s chemistry teacher. Miller asked Blickman to attend the meeting, while the father brought his own attorney, Rob Dassow.
During the meeting, Blickman took possession of the girl’s laptop, which her father had brought in an effort to identify Cox as the person his daughter was texting. Blickman sought assistance from the technology help desk at his law firm, Ice Miller, to copy the messages and save them to a thumb drive.
Meanwhile, Blickman researched the question of whether the school had an obligation to file a report of child abuse with the Department of Child Services. The meeting with the father took place on Dec. 14, 2015, and early the next morning, Blickman told Miller that he was required by statute to file a report.
But it would be Shants Hart, the associate head of school, who would make the DCS report later on the afternoon of Dec. 15, with Miller listening in. While on the call, Miller falsely indicated he did not know whether the messages between Cox and the girl included images, and Hart conveyed that uncertainty to DCS.
As the matter progressed, Blickman drafted an agreement that included financial provisions for the student’s tuition and counseling as well as a confidentiality agreement. The student’s family ultimately did not sign the agreement.
Meanwhile, a DCS representative attempted to interview the victim’s family, and a police investigation was launched. Hart referred investigators to Blickman, who initially refused to provide law enforcement with his files related to the Cox incident under attorney-client privilege.
However, when law enforcement executed a search warrant at the school in January 2016, Blickman provided the information that he had, including the messages copied from the girl’s laptop.
Cox — who had been fired on Dec. 15 despite public reports that he resigned — was eventually convicted and federal court and sentenced to 14 years, while the school entered a deferred prosecution agreement. Blickman was never charged, and Miller died by suicide in early 2016.
According to the disciplinary commission, Blickman’s actions during the fallout were all in an attempt to cover up Cox’s actions and protect the school.
“The evidence shows when Respondent was made aware of Cox’s criminal conduct, Respondent’s actions and advice were directed almost exclusively to prevent any public scrutiny of Park Tudor, which necessarily included an attempt to cover-up Cox’s crimes and an attempt to block a criminal investigation,” the commission’s proposed report says.
The law requires “immediate” reporting of child abuse, the commission argued, but Blickman’s desire to “research” the relevant statutes delayed the DCS report of Cox’s actions by nearly 24 hours. Blickman had previously advised the school to file a child abuse report related to a “less egregious” incident, the commission continued, casting doubt on his need to research the issue.
Blickman, however, argued in his proposed report that all the parties, including the girl’s father, wanted to maintain her confidentiality. Filing a DCS report could make the matter public, Blickman said, so they only wanted to call DCS if they were required by law to do so.
Thus, Blickman said he researched the relevant child abuse statutes — statutes the employment attorney said he was not familiar with — to determine if such a requirement existed. When he advised Miller to call DCS, Blickman said he assumed his client would follow his advice to make a full and accurate report.
But the critical omission in the report that was made — namely, Miller’s false indication that he did not know whether the messages included images — led to what Blickman says are false accusations against him.
According to Blickman’s proposed report, Indianapolis Police Detective Laura Smith came to Park Tudor and spoke with Hart, who referred the detective to Blickman for more information.
“Hart told Detective Smith the school did not have anything and gave Detective Smith (Blickman’s) contact information,” Blickman’s proposed report says. “… As Detective Smith testified at the hearing, she assumed from the meeting with Hart that Respondent was the source of the information given to DCS on December 15.”
That inaccurate assumption, Blickman said, made its way into public documents — including the criminal complaint against Cox — which, in turn, made their way into media reports and negatively impacted his reputation and client base.
The commission, however, said Blickman did not discuss with Miller how to handle the DCS report or any follow-up, actions that allegedly “infer that he knew that the report being made would minimize the seriousness of the matter.”
The proposed confidentiality agreement was also intended to minimize the fallout of the allegations in the public, the commission said, though Blickman claims the victim’s family did not initially have any problem with the agreement he drafted. And, he said, he did not advise the school to release a public statement saying Cox had resigned when he had actually been terminated.
On the issue of alleged possession of child pornography, Blickman said his decision to copy the explicit messages was in the interest of preserving evidence, noting the girl’s father had already deleted a message between Cox and the child. The commission, however, says the crime of child porn possession is committed “when a person knows he has possession of ‘a pictorial representation that depicts or describes sexual conduct by a child …’ which, in this case, is not in dispute.”
The commission also alleges Blickman claimed a non-existent privilege to withhold his files from law enforcement, noting the explicit messages came from a third party — the father — and not Blickman’s client. But according to Blickman, all of the materials in his file were “information relating to representation of a client” pursuant to Rule 1.6.
Rule 1.6 has been the subject of some controversy within the Indiana bar, with a 2015 opinion from the Indiana State Bar Association holding that attorneys are only required to break attorney-client privilege and report suspected child abuse “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm.” Blickman said such circumstances were not present here, while the commission argued the nonbinding ethics opinion does not apply to cases where evidence of child abuse comes from a nonclient, such as the victim’s father.
Shewmaker is now tasked with issuing his official hearing officer’s report, which may include a recommended sanction.
The commission did not specify how long it believes Blickman’s suspension should be, while Blickman’s team says no discipline is necessary at all.
The Indiana Supreme Court will have the final say on what sanction, if any, is appropriate.