The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday suspended for one year the law license of an attorney whose emails to Jim Tressel triggered an ongoing scandal and NCAA investigation that cost the football coach his job at Ohio State University.
At issue was whether Columbus attorney Christopher Cicero violated professional rules of conduct that prohibit revealing information from meetings with a client or prospective client.
The 5-2 court decision followed the recommendation of a disciplinary board that argued Cicero wrongly discussed interviews with tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife, a potential client. However, the court overruled the board’s recommendation for a six-month suspension.
Cicero sent emails to Tressel in April 2010, warning him that players were selling memorabilia or trading them for tattoos. The email traffic sparked the scandal and ended Tressel’s Ohio State tenure.
An NCAA investigation also led to a bowl ban this year, reductions in scholarships and the loss of Ohio State’s $389,000 share of the Big Ten bowl pot a year ago. The entire 2010 season also was vacated.
Justice Judith Lanzinger said the case went to the heart of the importance of confidentiality between a prospective client and an attorney.
“Prospective clients trust that their confidences will be protected when they engage in an initial consultation with an attorney,” Lanzinger wrote. “Cicero’s almost immediate dissemination of the detailed information that Rife provided on April 15 directly violated that trust.”
Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Terrence O’Donnell dissented, saying they would have imposed a six-month suspension.
“Cicero’s intentions were not for personal aggrandizement or personal gain, as found by the majority, but were to alert the coach about misconduct by his players that could affect the team,” Stratton wrote.
“His request that such information be held confidential does not support the notion that he was trying to seek fame,” she said.
Cicero’s lawyer said he was disappointed with the decision, saying he and his client had considered even a six-month suspension “a little harsh.”
“We ended up losing for a year a really, really great lawyer who practices in a difficult area — felony criminal law,” said attorney John Gonzales.
Cicero met with Rife on April 2, 2010, according to court documents, and again 13 days later to discuss whether Cicero would represent him in a federal drug trafficking case, according to a complaint against him by the Disciplinary Counsel of the Ohio Supreme Court.
Cicero, an Ohio State football player in the early 1980s, denied meeting with Rife on April 2.
He said the two did meet on April 15, 2010, with the goal of confirming that Rife’s partner, a former client of Cicero, wasn’t involved with drug dealing or memorabilia sales.
Rife’s house had been raided April 1 by federal drug investigators and Cicero wanted to know if Joseph Epling, his client and Rife’s business partner, was involved in the case.