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Email Provides Background To Rogers Attorney Conflict

by John Gore | December 16, 2014 at 1:30 a.m.

ROGERS -- Chris Griffin, city staff attorney, details allegations of unprofessional and unethical conduct on the part of City Attorney Ben Lipscomb in an email to the Arkansas Municipal League.

Griffin's email says Lipscomb tried to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation against him with potential witnesses, and also helped his wife with her efforts to bring legal action against the city he is elected to serve as attorney.

At A Glance

State Rules Of Ethics

• A lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of the law, both in professional service to clients and in the lawyer’s business and personal affairs.

• A lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client.

• The lawyer’s own interests should not be permitted to have an adverse effect on representation of a client.

• It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
Source: Staff Report

Lipscomb said Friday little of what Griffin wrote in the email is correct.

"Mr. Griffin is a very ambitious man. He has wanted my job for a very long time. He will do or say anything to keep his job. That's all I have to say, I refer any other questions to my attorney," Lipscomb said last week.

NWA Media reviewed dozens of email messages between Griffin, John Wilkerson and Mark Hayes, Municipal League attorneys, regarding the recent controversy surrounding Lipscomb, whose duties have been greatly reduced by the City Council. Wilkerson is the attorney of record defending the city in a lawsuit filed by Lipscomb.

An email from Griffin to Wilkerson describes his interactions with Lipscomb over several months. The email was composed to provide Wilkerson with background information following the filing of Lipscomb's federal lawsuit. Lipscomb sued the mayor and members of the City Council in U.S. District Court claiming the transfer of the majority of the duties from the city attorney to the staff attorney was done to punish him, violating his constitutional rights.

Aldermen approved two ordinances on Sept. 24. One established a staff attorney position, and the other the duties to be performed by the staff attorney. Those duties include: acting as legal adviser to all city officials, boards, commissions, departments and agencies; reviewing contracts and other legal documents that involve city operations; preparing ordinances, resolutions, contracts and other miscellaneous documents; and other duties as assigned.

Griffin's email states city officials began to lose faith in Lipscomb after he was investigated by a special prosecutor, Marc McCune, in connection with impersonating a law enforcement officer while attending a concert at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in July.

Griffin wrote that Lipscomb had made several comments to him that amounted to an admission of part of the behavior in question at the music pavilion. Griffin repeated the information when he was interviewed as part of the criminal investigation, and was advised by the county prosecutor not to discuss the case until the special prosecutor rendered a decision, according to the email. Griffin wrote that he felt prohibited from the discussing the case with Lipscomb because he is a commissioned county prosecutor as well.

Several weeks into the investigation, Lipscomb confronted Griffin and Mayor Greg Hines.

"He was defiant," Griffin wrote. Lipscomb said "that he was a law enforcement officer, the press was treating him badly, etc. Mayor Hines and I both made several attempts to silence him and tell him that it would be improper for us to discuss this while the case was pending, and that, as a prosecutor for 20 plus years he should know that.

"He responded by stating that it would be 'off the record,' and it was just 'us' talking," Griffin wrote.

Lipscomb became angry with Griffin, and made several comments to others that he was going to fire or demote Griffin, according to the email.

McCune announced on Sept. 5 that no charges would be filed against Lipscomb.

On Sept. 5 Lauri Lipscomb's daughter called 911 regarding the welfare of her mother. An emergency dispatcher called the Lipscomb home and talked with Ben Lipscomb, who said his wife was fine. No police or ambulance was sent. A copy of the 911 call and the phone call to the Lipscomb household were forwarded to several city officials from the Police Department.

The following week, media outlets asked that the recording be released under the provisions of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Griffin wrote in the email that he and Lipscomb had a conflict of interest and shouldn't be involved in the decision whether to release the recording. The matter was forwarded to Jim Clark, Benton County prosecutor, who determined the recording should be released. Clark is a former deputy city attorney under Lipscomb.

Lipscomb contends that his wife believed her Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act right of privacy was violated by the circulation of the recording, and she filed a civil rights complaint against the city with the federal Office of Civil Rights in Dallas.

According to Griffin's email, Ben Lipscomb was cautioned by Griffin he should make sure that he stayed out of the civil rights complaint because he represents the city, and needed a clear line between his professional obligation and his home life.

Griffin wrote he observed Lipscomb a short time later drafting a Freedom of Information Act request to the city for his wife related to her claims.

Lipscomb emailed Griffin asking when he learned of the 911 call regarding his wife. Griffin wrote in the email he told Lipscomb it was a conflict of interest for them to discuss the case.

"I confronted him about seeing him draft the FOIA letter for his wife. He said 'So what. It's just boilerplate and she has an attorney, there's nothing wrong with that,'" Lipscomb said, according to the email.

Lipscomb and Griffin traded insults, and Lipscomb left Griffin's office, according to the email.

Lipscomb said Friday he did work on a Freedom of Information Act request for his wife.

"People often ask me to help them with a Freedom of Information request. I don't see any difference in helping my wife," he said.

The Arkansas State Bar Association, the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee of Professional Conduct and the American Bar Association declined to comment whether it was a conflict of interest for Lipscomb, as city attorney, to draft a Freedom of Information Act request on city time for his wife to receive documents from the city. Spokesmen from the organizations said they didn't have enough details to comment.

Graham Sloan, director of the Arkansas State Ethics Commission, said Lipscomb's actions might be a violation under 21-8-304b a 2005 State Ethic Commission opinion. The opinion states: "No public official or state employee shall accept employment or engage in any public or professional activity while serving as a public official."

Sloan said he wasn't saying the action was a violation, but was merely pointing out what a previous opinion had found.

Griffin wrote in the email that after the argument with Lipscomb he met with Thomas Dunlap, the city's human resources director. He told Dunlap he wanted to work for the city, but could no longer work for Lipscomb. Griffin offered to resign. Griffin returned to his office and began removing his personal items, according to the email.

Hines contacted Griffin and told him there were several options being considered. During the discussion, Hines learned Lipscomb wanted to speak with him.

"The mayor went and met with Ben, and, about 20 minutes later, returned and stated Ben suggested they create a staff attorney position so I could report to the mayor," Griffin wrote. In the proposal, Lipscomb would retain the District Court prosecution; representation of the water department; drafting of ordinances; and would attend City Council meetings. The staff attorney would do the civil work for the city, according to the email.

Hines said last week the description of the meeting with Griffin and Lipscomb in the email is correct, and that Lipscomb is the person who suggested the staff attorney position be created with certain job duties moved to the new position.

Three aldermen, Clay Kendall, Betsy Reithemeyer and Marge Wolf, signed affidavits attesting that Lipscomb told the council it was his idea to create the position and move the job duties.

NW News on 12/16/2014

Print Headline: Email Provides Background To City Attorney Conflict


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