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What started out as a simple traffic violation and some small-town sleuthing has ended up costing one Nebraska lawyer his job — for the next four months anyway. The Supreme Court of Nebraska has issued a 120-day suspension against attorney Lyle J. Koenig in connection with his representation of an associate in his practice who was charged with driving without proper registration and proof of insurance. The decision stemmed from a letter written by Koenig, whose practice is in Beatrice, Neb., to the Gage County Attorney’s office seeking a hush-hush agreement to dismiss the charges against his associate. Although Koenig insisted that he meant the proposed agreement as a joke, the court was not amused and found that his conduct ran afoul of attorney ethics rules. After his associate, Dustin A. Garrison, was charged with the registration violation, Koenig sent the letter to a deputy county attorney noting that newly elected Gage County Attorney Randy Ritnour was in violation of the same law because his car was not registered in Gage County. Included in the letter was a photograph of the county attorney’s license plate revealing the alleged registration violation. Koenig’s letter included a motion to appoint a special prosecutor in Garrison’s case. “Our lips, of course, are forever sealed if [Garrison's] case gets dismissed,” Koenig wrote. He sent another letter four days later saying that he was ready to file the motion for a special prosecutor and asking whether the case had “settlement possibilities.” Garrison eventually pleaded no contest to the registration charge. The insurance charge was dismissed. Reached by phone, Ritnour said that Koenig was mistaken about the alleged violation and that he was within the time frame allowed to register his vehicle in Gage County. Attorney ethics rules required his office to alert ethics officials about the letters and the photograph, he said. Koenig described himself during a telephone interview as a “well known personality in Nebraska.” Beatrice, in southeast Nebraska, has a population of 12,700. Koenig said that he made the sealed-lips comment in jest. “I meant that in a way the phrase is always used — as a joke.” In issuing the suspension, the court was not persuaded by Koenig’s argument that he was kidding. It found that he violated an ethics rule that prohibits an attorney from prejudicing the administration of justice and a rule that prohibits stating or implying an ability to improperly influence government officials. It did not find that Koenig had committed a crime. “No one — not the county attorney or the counsel for discipline or the referee or the members of this court — has believed Koenig’s claim that he was joking,” the court said. The court noted that the state had disciplined Koenig twice before: once for making false allegations in court and another time for misrepresenting the status of an estate proceeding. However, the court also rejected the disciplinary referee’s recommendation of a year’s suspension, noting that Koenig was cooperative and that his conduct did not harm clients. Koenig said that he was in the process of taking down the signs at his office identifying him as an attorney, as required by ethics rules. Garrison is the only other attorney in the office. Koenig’s suspension began on July 31.

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