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Two of the main players in one of the most unusual ethical battles concerning a Dallas civil judge in recent memory announced last week that their traded accusations were all just a big misunderstanding. Dallas County Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge David R. Gibson, who was the subject of bribery allegations, says he’s dropping a defamation suit against Jeffrey T. Robnett, who leveled the charges in a detailed affidavit presented to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI. Robnett had accused Gibson of soliciting a bribe from a defense lawyer with a case pending in his court and engaging in ex parte communications about motions in that case. Robnett now says he misunderstood the context of the conversation between Gibson and Steve Stodghill, who had represented Yahoo/Broadcast .com. in a $5 billion contract dispute in Universal Image Inc., d/b/a Chalkboardtalk.com v. Yahoo! Inc., et al. Robnett said he was present at a meeting between the judge and Stodghill at Stodghill’s home in May. Robnett is not involved in the Yahoo case but attended the meeting at Stodghill’s house to discuss a separate matter involving modification of Gibson’s divorce decree. An official with the U.S. Attorney’s Office said he could neither confirm nor deny that there was an FBI investigation of the Yahoo case. During an Oct. 31 press conference held with Gibson, Robnett said he stood by the statements in his May affidavit. But Robnett said he did not realize that the Yahoo case had been removed to bankruptcy court and was not pending before Gibson at the time he wrote the affidavit. Robnett also said he did not understand at the time that Gibson and Stodghill had been planning a fund-raiser for Gibson’s re-election effort since 1998 � long before the Yahoo suit was filed. That misunderstanding, he said, led to the bribery allegation. “If I had known that a bankruptcy stay was in effect, and that the fund-raiser had been planned for a long time, I do not believe that I would have reached the same conclusions I did about the conversation,” Robnett said, reading from a prepared statement. Gibson recused himself from the case on July 27, soon after Robnett’s affidavit surfaced in the case. He says he did nothing inappropriate. “I did not consider this conversation to be inappropriate at the time, nor do I consider it inappropriate now,” Gibson said reading from a prepared statement. “But it was unfair of me to put Jeff in that position, since he did not know about the bankruptcy stay.” “If I had it to do over again, the one thing I would do differently is, I would recuse myself after the bankruptcy stay was lifted and the case came back to my court,” Gibson said. The Yahoo case was removed — again — to federal court on July 31 and is pending before Dallas U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay. Stodghill did not return a call for comment. But his lawyer, John Bickel, says Stodghill was pleased at the turn of events last week. “Frankly we’re not surprised by this. Comments were taken totally out of context in a social setting,” says Bickel, a partner in Dallas’ Bickel & Brewer. “This should now be a dead issue, and Stodghill is pleased that finally the truth came out.” Lawrence J. Friedman, who represents Chalk boardtalk.com, did not return a call for comment. Friedman is a well-known Dallas civil lawyer and partner in Friedman Driegert & Hsueh. Friedman’s partner, Robert Driegert, is chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party. According to Robnett’s May affidavit, while having drinks, he listened as Gibson and Stodghill allegedly discussed pending motions in the Yahoo case, including a sanction motion filed against Friedman. “Judge Gibson queried what would happen to him �two years from now’ as the result of his ruling in the case at issue,” Robnett alleged in the affidavit. “He told Mr. Stodghill that he needed to be �protected’ from adverse political ramifications for sanctioning Friedman or other rulings against Friedman’s client.” ETHICS While Gibson and Robnett say the bankruptcy stay in the Yahoo case changed the context of the conversation, two experts say Gibson and Stodghill were on shaky ethical ground discussing the case even though it had been removed to bankruptcy court. “Cases that get removed often get remanded. That conversation should never have happened,” says James McCormack, former general counsel for the State Bar of Texas; he now advises law firms on legal ethics and malpractice. “It does matter that both of them had a reasonable belief that the case wouldn’t come back. The question in my mind is it possible for it to come back?” McCormack says. “It’s not really a gray area to me because judges and lawyers are not free to discuss cases in the way they do. Lawyers feel like they have carte blanche to talk to judges about cases any time they feel,” McCormack says. “But that’s not the case, and they need to cut it out.” Charles F. “Chuck” Herring Jr., an Austin legal ethics expert, says the judicial canons don’t specifically address the issue that arose in the Yahoo case; however, judges should normally avoid putting themselves in situations where they later have to recuse themselves from cases. “If they had thought about it more, they may have not let that happen,” Herring says of the conversation. Margaret Reaves, executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, would neither confirm nor deny that the commission is investigating Gibson’s conduct in the Yahoo case. But speaking theoretically, she says a judge isn’t supposed to speak about a removed case if there’s a chance the case may come back to his court. “Talking theoretically, we would have to look at the specifics of the case that the judge was discussing,” Reaves says. “I couldn’t give you a hard and fast response. It would certainly be an issue [the specifics of the case] that we would consider.” Bickel says that neither Stodghill’s nor Gibson’s comments were inappropriate because both assumed the case would never return to Gibson’s court. “I think that it’s permissible by the rules as I understand the rules,” Bickel says. “And I think Steve’s actions were consistent with the rules, and Judge Gibson’s actions were consistent with the judicial canons. Both understood that he wasn’t going to be presiding, and that ultimately was the case.” Randy Johnston, a Dallas lawyer who represents Gibson, says the judge has met with the FBI about the matter and will continue to cooperate with the investigation. “Everything that I know about that investigation convinces me that it’s a search for truth,” Johnston says. “I think these statements [given at the press conference] contain the truth, and when they conclude the investigation, the judge will be cleared.”

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