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Texas Legal Ethics Expert: Gonzales Likely Under Investigation By State Bar

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The woman who literally wrote the book on legal ethics in Texas says it's likely that the Texas State Bar is probing the professional conduct of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"Given the publicity regarding the allegations concerning Mr. Gonzales, I would be surprised if the [Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel of the Texas State Bar] is not currently investigating a complaint," said Lillian Hardwick, co-author of the Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics.

But the Disciplinary Counsel in Austin, which could mete out punishments up to disbarment, was unable to confirm or deny whether Gonzales was facing scrutiny from his home state's bar association.

"I'm not able to answer that question," Maureen Ray, the Special Administrative Counsel in the Texas State Bar's Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, told the Huffington Post on Monday. "Our rules provide that while grievances are in an investigatory phase, up until anything is filed in district court or a public disciplinary sanction is issued, it's confidential."

Alberto Gonzales's tenure as President Bush's second attorney general officially ended Monday morning. Neither the White House nor the Justice Department disclosed his future plans.

With the nomination of retired judge Michael Mukasey, Bush seemed ready to move quickly away from the nine months of turbulence that Gonzales experienced. But congressional investigators have emphasized that Gonzales's exit will not end the scrutiny of tenure at the Justice Department.

"I look forward to the Inspector General's findings on the unprecedented firings of nine United States Attorneys, the improper political hiring of career officials within the Justice Department, the misuse of National Security Letters, and the efforts to bypass the Department's finding that a warrantless surveillance program was without legal basis," Sen Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said three days after Gonzales announced his resignation. "The current Attorney General is leaving, but these questions remain."

While Gonzales's resignation from public life ends the prospect of further impeachment or 'no confidence' motions in Congress, the long-time Bush friend could still face professional sanctions in Texas.

"Is there enough evidence based on the US Attorneys investigation, perjury allegations on wiretapping, and obstruction of justice charges, to initiate an investigation?" asked Bob Bennett, a Houston-based attorney who recently ranked Gonzales as the 'worst prosecutor' in the nation at his blog 'Bad Prosecutors.' "There's no question. Would a reasonable person think that rules of professional conduct have been violated? That's the standard to initiate an investigation."

The Chief Disciplinary Counsel receives about 7,000 complaints a year, office spokesperson Ray explained, and declines to pursue around 2/3 of them. Under Texas State Bar rules, it also may initiate its own investigations when the office believes such a move is warranted. Once a complaint is accepted by the Counsel, the party in question has 30 days to issue a written response. After the response is received, the Counsel determines whether there is just cause to proceed, and allows the target of the investigation to choose whether the case will be heard in a district court, or by a local grievance committee. The proceedings become public immediately upon entering a district court, or once a public sanction is given. Sanctions include public and private reprimands, suspensions, and potentially disbarment.

Hardwick, who was recently awarded a Certificate of Merit by the Texas State Bar for her work revising the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, pointed out that according to the State Bar's rules, Gonzales's senior government position meant that he assumed "legal responsibilities going beyond those of other citizens. A lawyer's abuse of public office can suggest an inability to fulfill the professional role of attorney."

She also said that if a complaint came before the Texas Bar, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel's office was likely to do its work in a professional manner.

"Our current Chief Disciplinary Counsel is John Neal, who spent 10 years with the Texas Attorney General as Division Chief, and is certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization," she said in an e-mail. "I think he's especially qualified to scrutinize charges, factual findings, and disciplinary orders from another jurisdiction regarding the kinds of allegations made against Mr. Gonzales."

But Gonzales critic Bennett said he was skeptical that the process would get so far due to the political sensitivities.

"In this type of political situation, it's very doubtful they would initiate an investigation," Bennett said of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel's office. He also suggested that he did "not see movement afoot among Texas Democratic groups" to "further beat up on Al."

Still, Bennett acknowledged that the Texas State Bar's hand could be forced. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility and Inspector General are jointly investigating a number of matters relating to the attorney general's conduct, including allegations that he obstructed justice when he asked former aide Monica Goodling to share her recollections about the firing of the US Attorneys, as well as charges that he perjured himself during congressional testimony about the warrantless wiretapping program. Findings in those investigations could lead to moves in Texas against Gonzales.

"If it comes out that he suborned perjury or obstructed justice, something like that will change the landscape," Bennett concluded.

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