NEW ORLEANS — A disciplinary board is examining whether a district attorney in Louisiana should be punished for representing a woman in his private practice after charges were brought against her in a boating accident — an alleged conflict of interest.
On Thursday, the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board heard a case that has dogged J. Phil Haney, the district attorney for Iberia, St. Mary and St. Martin parishes.
In Louisiana, many parishes allow their district attorneys and assistant district attorneys to run a private law practice and prosecute cases on the public’s behalf, just as Haney did.
In September 2011, Haney was accused by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a body that investigates misconduct by lawyers, of violating rules of professional conduct.
The board did not make a ruling Thursday. The state high court will have the final say. Lawyers facing disciplinary charges can be slapped with a public reprimand, probation and suspension. They also can be disbarred for serious violations.
At the hearing, G. Fred Ours, a deputy with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, said Haney should have stopped representing Stephanie Provost after he found out that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had filed charges.
Provost was injured when she fell out of an inner tube being towed by a boat driven by her former boyfriend, according to a disciplinary board report. Her former boyfriend, Shane Roberts, was cited by state Wildlife and Fisheries agents for misdemeanor criminal violations of reckless operation of a watercraft and no waterskiing observer.
After Haney found out about the criminal charges in the case, he had his district attorney’s office recuse itself but he retained Provost as a client, the report said. Haney was paid $20,000 in legal fees after the civil case against Provost’s boyfriend was settled in December 2007.
“If you’ve got a conflict you have to get out of both cases,” Ours argued. He charged that Haney kept the case “that could generate a fee for him.”
“If you are a lawyer serving in a public function,” Ours said, “your primary duty is to serve the public.”
In July, though, a committee of the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board investigating Haney’s case found no violations of the rules of professional conduct. The committee’s recommendations were submitted to the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board, which in turn will submit recommendations to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The committee said Haney did the right thing by recusing his office from prosecuting the case once he found out that the Wildlife Department had filed charges against Roberts.
The committee also found nothing improper in the way Haney handled Provost’s case, even though he listed his contact information as the district attorney’s office in New Iberia when he submitted paperwork to an insurance company on behalf of Provost.
Haney’s lawyers on Thursday said it was customary for district attorney’s to have private clients.
Bernard Boudreaux, Haney’s predecessor at the district attorney’s office for the 16th Judicial District, told the disciplinary board that prosecutors make so little money that they need to supplement their salaries with private cases.
He argued that upholding the Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s prosecution would have a chilling effect on lawyers interested in becoming prosecutors.
Richard Stanley, another lawyer for Haney, said that when Provost came to Haney there was no indication that the case would become a criminal matter.
He said Provost simply was interested in getting Haney’s help in dealing with medical insurance issues. He pointed out that Provost did not file charges against Roberts.