NEW ORLEANS—An expert on legal and judicial ethics in
Louisiana doubts the state office overseeing lawyer conduct will find cause to discipline U.S. Sen. David Vitter on allegations he broke the law years ago with his connection to Washington prostitutes.
"As a technical matter, this is something that the office could look into and there is no statute of limitations with regard to bringing a disciplinary action," said Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor who tracks attorney discipline cases.
But, Ciolino added, "I honestly think the Office of Disciplinary Council has bigger fish to fry than David Vitter."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said this week it filed a complaint with the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel arising from Vitter's admission of a "serious sin" in 2007 after his phone number appeared in records of a Washington prostitution ring. Vitter, a Republican, has not been charged with a crime and refused to discuss the issue.
Charles Plattsmier, attorney for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, said the office is prohibited from acknowledging it has received a complaint and won't say anything about a complaint unless formal charges are approved by a three-member panel appointed by the state's Attorney Disciplinary Board. Charges are approved only after interviews are done, documents and other evidence are reviewed and the panel decides discipline is called for.
"Then it becomes public," Plattsmier said. A hearing, conducted by a separate three-member panel, would be held and, if that panel finds sanctions are in order, the matter goes to the 14-member Disciplinary Board, which hears more arguments, before making a decision. The board can reprimand the attorney or recommend that the state Supreme Court suspend or disbar the attorney.
Ciolino said the process could take months or even years.
CREW's complaint is based on Rule 8.4(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which states misconduct includes "a criminal act especially one that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects."
The key question, Ciolino said, is not just whether the Office if Disciplinary Council would find Vitter committed a crime, but whether it is an offense that "reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer." Ciolino said the words "fitness as a lawyer" are key.
"Given my experience with the disciplinary system, I would be very surprised if this complaint had any legs," he said, noting it was private conduct that is alleged to have happened years ago.
Sexual misconduct cases have been pursued by the ODC, he said. "But it generally involves conflicts of interest from personal relationships with clients."
"They've got a lot of cases dealing with lawyer misconduct that's clearly related to their function as lawyers. And this is certainly not one of those cases."
The issue has significant political overtones, and continues to keep Vitter's admitted indiscretion in the public eye as he gears up for a re-election bid.
CREW, in filing its complaint, accused Vitter of hypocrisy for calling for criminal investigations and funding cutoffs against the community organizing group ACORN.
Vitter's office countered that CREW's director is a former lawyer for congressional Democrats and was trying to divert attention from party ties to ACORN.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Blue Dog Democrat, has declared he will oppose Vitter in next year's election.