First the players were suspended. And now, a lawyer.
The Ohio Supreme Court on November 28 suspended attorney Christopher Cicero from practice for one year after concluding that he shared information gleaned from a potential client about an impending scandal at Ohio State University with the former head football coach.
Cicero, a Columbus attorney and former walk-on linebacker for the OSU Buckeyes, sent emails in April 2010 to former coach Jim Tressel following two meetings Cicero had with tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife. Federal officials had raided Rife’s home on a drug bust, and he was considering hiring Cicero to defend him on drug charges.
Cicero’s emails informed the coach that he had learned during the meetings that Rife possessed team memorabilia worth thousands of dollars. An investigation later found that Rife had bought some of the items from players and had received some in exchange for giving them tattoos. Items included signed jerseys, a Most Valuable Player trophy and conference championship rings. Cicero’s emails indicated that he was providing the information to Tressel in confidence.
The tattoo scandal eventually led to Tressel’s resignation after he claimed no knowledge of the situation, and to National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions against the team. The NCAA suspended a number of players, including then-quarterback Terrelle Pryor, from five games during 2011 and banned the Buckeyes from bowl games through 2012. The team has wonseven national championships in the past. Undefeated this season, they are No. 4 in the Associated Press college football rankings.
The court on November 28 found that Cicero violated attorney ethics rules that prohibit lawyers from revealing information learned from discussions with potential clients, and that prohibit attorneys from engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on their fitness to practice.
“Prospective clients trust that their confidences will be protected when they engage in an initial consultation with an attorney,” Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote for the court. “Cicero’s almost immediate dissemination of the detailed information that Rife provided on April 15 directly violated that trust.”
The one-year suspension was six months longer than the penalty the Ohio Office of Disciplinary Counsel had recommended. Although the court considered his overall solid reputation in the community as a federal criminal defense attorney, it cited aggravating factors including a prior year-long suspension that Cicero received in 1997.
That year, the court found that he had “led several members of the bar to believe” that he’d had an ongoing sexual relationship with the judge presiding over one of his cases and that she would help resolve the matter quickly so that the two could resume the relationship. Cicero testified during the 1997 disciplinary proceeding that his comments about the judge were exaggerated and that he did not have an intimate relationship with her until she recused herself from the case.
Cicero did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Representing him was John Gonzales, an attorney at the Behal Law Group in Columbus.
“The biggest shock here is that they tacked on another six months,” Gonzales said. “Chris is a really great felony criminal defense lawyer. The [judges] panel accepted this drug dealer felon’s word over Chris’.”
Another aggravating factor that the courtcited was Cicero’s motivation for emailing Tressel: “self-aggrandizement,” the justices found.
In a dissent, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton disagreed with that finding, arguing for a six-month suspension instead.
“I believe that Cicero’s intentions were not for personal aggrandizement or personal gain, as found by the majority, butwere to alert the coach about misconduct by his players that could affect the team. His request that such information be held confidential does not support the notion that he was trying to seek fame,” Stratton wrote. Joining Stratton in the dissent was Justice Terrence O’Donnell.
Cicero’s suspension became effective immediately.
Contact Leigh Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.