Ethics No-Show In Neosho

intimidation-graphicYikes. This story was sent to me under the heading of “Most Unbelievable Ethics Flub Ever.” I don’t know about that, but to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones says in “No Country For Old Men, “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the ethics flub gets here.”

Neosho City Council Member Steve Hart objected to the fact that a constituent in the small Missouri town was given a ticket for driving a lawn mower on the public street. In a conversation surreptitiously recorded by Neosho City Attorney Steve Hays, he tried everything from threats to verbal abuse to accusations of corruption to bully Hays into dropping the charge.
The highlight of the conversation, though there are many candidates, is probably this gem from Hart:
“You know how we are. Just become our little bitch , city attorney. Do a good job, and everything will be fine.”

“Make it go away. I’m telling you now, make it go away,” Hart says, more than once.
“I will not allow myself to do that,” replies  Hays.
“It’s the right thing to do,” says Hart. 
“The right thing to do is treat him the same as I do everybody else,”  Hays responds. 
“He should’ve never got a ticket,” argues Hart. 
“He did and it was a right ticket,” Hays replies.
Then come the threats.
“I can vote to fire your ass,  and I don’t need any proof,” Hart says.
Next, the accusations:
“I’m not going to have you running a little vindictive campaign against anybody, okay? Because I knew you had the cop give him the ticket,” said Hart. 
“How do you know that?” asks Hays. 
“I was told it and that is none of you business,” replies Hart. 
“It never happened. Bring proof,” says Hays.
“I don’t need proof,” says Hart. 
Ah, but now Hays had proof…that Hart was inappropriately trying to interfere with law enforcement, improperly trying to influence the city attorney, and, it seems clear, a jerk, a bully, and a jackass.
After Neosho’s mayor pronounced Hart’s conduct “disappointing” and “inappropriate,” as well as not untypical of how he has behaved toward others, Hart had his lawyer make this statement:
“It is clear from the portion of the recorded conversation which has been distributed to the press, that Councilman Hart was upset with City Attorney Steve Hays for the manner in which City Attorney Hays was targeting Neosho citizens for minor, harmless activities such as driving a lawn mower or tractor on a city street without a driver’s license. Councilman Hart deeply regrets the manner in which he expressed his frustrations to City Attorney Hays, but firmly believes such activity is not illegal and the city’s limited law enforcement resources should be put to better use. More importantly, it seems improper for City Attorney Steve Hays to secretly record a conversation about city legal issues between himself and his client, Councilman Hart.” 
Ugh.
I know the lawyer has to stand up for his client, the Jerk, but this is inept and misleading;
1. If the activity violated a law, it was illegal. Saying it is minor doesn’t make it legal. I’d expect a lawyer to understand that.
2. The statement deceitfully states as fact what Hart alleged without proof: that the city attorney was “targeting citizens.” Thus it smears Hart unfairly, unjustly, and dishonestly.
3.  Believing that the city’s resources are misapplied is a legitimate point to be made in an official manner. Insisting that a particular ticket be dropped has nothing to do with the use of resources. It is a case of the councilman meddling in ongoing law enforcement on behalf of individual citizens.
“An attorney may record a conversation, in which the attorney is a party, without notifying the other parties to the conversation, unless other actors are present including, but not limited to: (1) laws prohibiting the recording in the jurisdiction in which the recording would occur, (2) the attorney states or implies that the conversation is not being recorded, or (3) the conversation involves a current client of the attorney…. If the recording is of a conversation with a current client, the attorney must give some notice to the client that the attorney is, or may be, recording the conversation.”
Hart’s attorney needs to catch up on his legal ethics
Finally, Hart is not Hays’ client, and Hart’s lawyer should know that: it’s Legal Ethics 101. Hays’ client is the town of Neosho, and Hart was not speaking as the town’s authorized representative in that matter.
________________________
Facts: Fourstate

10 thoughts on “Ethics No-Show In Neosho

  1. Aside: if anyone familiar with WordPress understand why the random post will simply not accept spacing commands between paragraphs and sentences, please enlighten me. This was an example, and I regret the layout. On my draft, it looks like there are too may lines separating paragraphs, but as you can see, it is all squashed together on the blog. This happens with no warning and for no discernible reason, and I apologize to Ethics Alarms readers.

  2. If the attorney is smart, he’ll turn in his resignation forthwith. It’s one thing to bite your tongue once because someone lost it. However, it’s clear the political powers-that-be aren’t happy with the job he’s doing and want someone a little more compliant, i.e. if they tell him to jump, he asks “how high?” if they tell him to shit, he asks “what color?” An attorney in a culture like that is in a no-win situation. Either he hews to his ethics and loses his job, or he keep shis job and opens himself up to ethics charges, which I’m betting his current client wouldn’t hesitate to hold over his head to sink their claws a little deeper. Small-town municipal government is by nature very narrow, very provincial, and a small pond with a very few big fish in it. Everyone knows who the big fish are, and no one dares to challenge them, lest they lose their place in the food chain and no one give a damn about it. This kind of provincial crap is what led to a lot of the states writing their own constitutions after WWII so that local party bosses couldn’t run the show, and what created the pernicious culture that permeated the Deep South for four decades after that war. Seems like a few weeds from those fields are still alive in a few places, although not as colored with racism as they once were.

  3. See… Yeah….I might just not have a proper legal frame of reference for this, but when you say: “Finally, Hart is not Hays’ client, and Hart’s lawyer should know that: it’s Legal Ethics 101. Hays’ client is the town of Neosho, and Hart was not speaking as the town’s authorized representative in that matter.”

    Right after pointing out that: “An attorney may record a conversation, in which the attorney is a party, without notifying the other parties to the conversation, unless other actors are present including, but not limited to:” “(3) the conversation involves a current client of the attorney…. If the recording is of a conversation with a current client, the attorney must give some notice to the client that the attorney is, or may be, recording the conversation”

    It just strikes me that he was acting as the town’s representative. He might have been doing a poor job, but he is a councillor, the discussion was legal in nature, and the discussion would not have happened (especially the way it happened) if Hays was not a councillor and he did not think he was acting as a representative. But I could be wrong, in fact, I pre-resign myself to being wrong, I’d just like to know why.

    But assuming that it was ethical to record the conversation, is it then ethical to release it to the media, as opposed to his ‘real’ client?

    • No, he was engaged in unethical, extra legal conduct that the attorney had an obligation to bring to the mayor’s attention as well as the city council and arguably the public. It’s not confidential, and wouldn’t be even if Hart was the client, which he clearly was not and is not. This is a crime-fraud exception at best: a government official cannot try to induce a government lawyer not to enforce the law using threats. Since the councilman is engaging in corrupt behavior—it’s pretty obvious that he’s working on behalf of a constituent to skirt the law—Hays has an obligation to let all concerned party know about the conduct…arguably even the press and the public, if he fears reasonably that the officials won’t do anything. I’m not crazy about Hart revealing it to the press, if he did. But it’s defensible on ethical grounds.

      Hart got a lawyer because he knows he’s on the edge of sanctionable conduct, or over it,

      • Thanks for explaining, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around this… Are you saying that if Hart had called Hays and inquired about the litigation, Hays would be Hart’s client as a representative of the city, but because he was committing an act of fraud, it precluded him from acting as the city’s representative?

        • Hart has no legitimate role in a traffic ticket…it’s Hays’ responsibility, and his job is to represent the town by prosecuting violations. The city council speaks for the town…the mayor does. A single councilman just isn’t the town, and thus isn’t the client. That, and the fact that he’s trying to circumvent law enforcement, makes him like any other law breaker.

  4. I can tell you with certainty that Steve Hays is one of the most vindictive jackasses to ever walk this earth. He runs a private practice the next county over, and has no moral qualms about getting people arrested in Neosho and then offering to represent them from Joplin. I would describe him as amoral at best, and it looks like the city of Neosho is finally fed up with his constant line of bullshit. He really knows how to piss people off, and seems to do it out of sheer boredom sometimes.

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