Ann Maher Dec. 4, 2014, 10:27am

A hearing board of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission has recommended that Belleville attorney Ron Duebbert be censured for knowingly making false statements about his opponent in a 2012 campaign flier.

Duebbert, Republican, lost election to the circuit court seat vacated by Michael O'Malley in 2010, to then-Associate Judge Vincent Lopinot, Democrat, by a margin of 55.57 to 44.43 percent.

Lopinot filed an ethics complaint against Duebbert over the flier, which led to ARDC Administrator Jerome Larkin filing a complaint against Duebbert in November 2013. Larkin alleged that Duebbert circulated as many as 100,000 fliers that misrepresented Lopinot's involvement in a high profile murder case in 1989.

The flier identified Lopinot as supervisor of public defender Brian Trentman in 1989, when Trentman represented murder suspect Rodney Woidtke.

It stated that Lopinot and Trentman “were negligent in their representation of Mr. Woidtke in a 1989 criminal proceeding that resulted in his wrongful conviction of murder of Audrey Cardenas.”

Larkin alleged that Duebbert knew the statement was false or he made it with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.

Duebbert fought the charges, stating that he "had reason to believe, after an investigation reasonable under the circumstances, that all the statements in the campaign circular were accurate." He said that the language used in the flier was quoted from a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion.

He denied all of the charges of misconduct.

In affirmative defense, he also claimed his speech was protected by the First Amendment.

The hearing board, which issued its findings Nov. 26, stated, "We do not believe Respondent's preparation and distribution of the knowingly false information pertaining to the background, character, and qualifications of his opponent in a judicial election was speech protected by the United States or Illinois Constitution."

The board supported its position on the speech issue by citing Sawyer, 360 U.S. at 646-47 (1959):

"A lawyer belongs to a profession with inherited standards of propriety and honor, which, experience has shown necessary in a calling dedicated to the accomplishment of justice. He who would follow that calling must conform to those standards. Obedience to ethical precepts may require abstention from what in other circumstances might be constitutionally protected speech."

Duebbert's attorney Michael Downey of St. Louis said he would challenge the hearing board's recommendation by filing a notice of exception. He said the notice must be filed within 21 days of the board's Nov. 26 report.

The board also concluded that it found "it impossible to believe that (Duebbert) actually thought the quotation on his mailer accurately reflected" what the Seventh Circuit said or meant about the case and upon which Duebbert had relied.

The complaint against Duebbert was amended in February, in which Larkin abandoned an allegation that the statement made by Duebbert brought the courts or the legal profession into disrepute.

The St. Clair County court system was rocked by scandal in 2013 after a judge died of a cocaine overdose, another was charged with heroin possession and a probation officer was charged with distributing drugs.

During a hearing on May 16, Duebbert told the board - comprised of Paul Hendren, chair, Reona Daly and Ted Eilerman - that he planned to use only positive materials in his campaign.

"However, after he learned that Judge Lopinot's campaign was going to go 'negative,' by publishing an article about a 1999 charge against Respondent for 'offensive battery,' he decided to respond with, among other things, the Woidtke case," the report states.

Lopinot told the board that his reaction to seeing the flier was: "I didn't like it . . . when you see your picture . . . under the words negligent on a case where you had absolutely nothing to do with it, it doesn't make you feel real good."

When asked if he was harmed, Lopinot said: "I think I was harmed in my reputation, that - - somehow I was negligent in a case that I had nothing to do with."

The board indicated it was recommending censure over harsher sanction because "the misconduct was a single mistake and an isolated incident in a legal career of more than 20 years."

"Respondent has been licensed to practice law since 1990 and has not been previously disciplined," the report states. "It also appears from the evidence that Respondent had a serious lapse of sound judgment during the heat of his election campaign."

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