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Archive for Saturday, October 31, 2009

Corrections department seeks to sanction attorney

October 31, 2009

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— The Kansas Department of Corrections has filed an ethics complaint against an attorney who helped a reporter investigate illegal sexual relationships at a state prison for women.

In a complaint filed with the Office of Disciplinary Administrator, Charles Simmons, deputy secretary of corrections, alleges that attorney Keen Umbehr misrepresented the occupation of Tim Carpenter, a reporter for The Topeka Capital-Journal.

The newspaper has published several stories detailing illegal sexual relationships and contraband trafficking by employees and inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility.

The series led Gov. Mark Parkinson to ask for an outside investigation of the Corrections Department.

The Legislature’s auditing arm is conducting its own inquiry into the prison system.

Corrections spokesman Bill Miskell said the department’s protocols for reporters when they enter prisons are designed to keep its facilities secure.

“Basic to that responsibility is knowing who is entering our facilities and the purpose for them doing so,” he said.

Umbehr said he did not misrepresent Carpenter and had no legal obligation to tell prison officials the reporter’s identity.

He suggested the ethics complaint was in retaliation for his helping to “uncover a terrible human rights abuse.”

“This is done to chill and punish anyone else who might come forward with complaints of corruption,” he said.

Tomari Quinn, managing editor of The Capital-Journal, said Carpenter didn’t misrepresent himself in any way and complied with every request from prison employees.

Umbehr noted that the department’s complaint process began Oct. 6, 58 days after he and Carpenter visited the prison on Aug. 10, but two days after The Capital-Journal published its first story.

Miskell said the complaint was filed soon after the stories were published because that is how department officials learned of Carpenter’s jailhouse interview.

Prison employee Christine Brooks said in an affidavit that when Umbehr called on Aug. 7 and requested an attorney-client visit with two inmates, he identified Carpenter as his “legal assistant.”

Kansas rules of professional conduct for attorneys state a lawyer “shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person.”

Umbehr said he is sure he called Carpenter his “assistant,” not “legal assistant.”

He noted another section of the conduct rules says that a lawyer “has no affirmative duty to inform an opposing person of relevant facts.”

Miskell said if Umbehr had identified Carpenter as a news reporter, he would have been sent through the established protocol for media inquiries.

“The issue involving Mr. Carpenter’s means of access to the Topeka Correctional Facility has nothing to do with retaliation, but rather the apparent failure to comply with department policies and state law designed to promote the safety and security of the state’s correctional facilities,” he said.

Comments

Frank Smith 5 years, 1 month ago

This story contains many facts and contentions not found in the Capital Journal report.

While I believe that the public clearly has a right to know about its government, including its conduct within prisons, and the inmates of our prisons have a indisputable right to protection from abuse, allegations have been made that should compel us to question the professionality of the reporters and the reliability their sources.

The issue of smuggling is another with which the public should be concerned. A guard or support staff employee who brings in cigarettes today will be far more inclined to bring in drugs, weapons or escape tools such as cell phones tomorrow. These present a danger to the public, to prison staff and to the inmates themselves. Drug trafficing in prison, for instance, leads to all too many prisoner murders around the country.

Another issue is the notion of "consensual sex" within a prison. The disproportionate power relationships between guards and prisoners automatically exclude them from that category. Those would be even more unethical than sex between teacher and students, between doctors and patients, since prisoners cannot easily extricate themselves from the situation. Again, if a guard engages in sex with a prisoner, security is severely compromised.

Despite all that, if an attorney with his or her unrestricted access to inmates deliberately brings a reporter in by failing to disclose the real purpose of their presence, their true role, that behavior seems clearly unethical. Trying a case in the newspapers might be seen as an acceptable tactic, but engaging in deceit that could compromise the security of a prison is certainly not.

That a reporter could further contend that a story that smuggling and abuse is supposedly widespread throughout our correctional system is valid, based on the word of two convicted felons, in the absence of sufficient corroborating evidence, seems extremely unprofessional. It would be like writing a story about flying saucers supposedly being real that was based entirely on the testimony of two people wearing tinfoil hats.

I certainly hope that reporter Tim Carpenter's editor made sure the story was properly sourced, and if not, the paper should suffer the consequences.

Mixolydian 5 years, 1 month ago

Simmons may be the deputy secretary of corrections, but he's also a licensed attorney with a duty, independent of his DOC job, to report ethical violations that he is aware of made by other lawyers. This isn't the DOC seeking to sanction an attorney, it's one attorney fulfilling his ethical obligation to report another lawyer for ethical violations.

As to the "story," it concerned a DOC plumber who engaged in unlawful sexual relations with an inmate, a level 10 felony, who was convicted and sentenced well over a year ago. That story was in the papers then. It wasn't hidden or covered up.

The impetus behind these recent articles concern a plaintiff's lawyer who gave Tim Carpenter access to his client (The plumbers victim) at the Topeka Correctional Facility. The lawyer did this in an attempt to groom his potential jury pool and scare up more clients. Nothing more, nothing less.

Carpenter was played and he probably still thinks he was writing a hard hitting investigative series of articles.

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