A judicial panel has recommended that Iowa City attorney Jeff McGinness, who is a member of the Iowa City school board, lose his law license for six months because of professional misconduct.
The Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission last month found that McGinness, who also is a former star wrestler at Iowa City High School and the University of Iowa, falsified documents in a civil case in 2012 and, when confronted, lied about it to the opposing attorney and a judge.
McGinness eventually admitted to three violations of the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct, which detail lawyers’ professional and ethical responsibilities. Violating the rules can result in discipline.
The case will be submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court, which can impose a sanction different from what has been recommended, said Steve Davis, spokesman for the Iowa Judicial branch. The matter has not yet been scheduled.
McGinness also could appeal the commission’s report, he said.
The situation may not affect McGinness’ position on the school board. There does not appear to be any provision in state law or school district policies that would prevent him from continuing to serve on the board. He is about to finish his second year of a four-year term.
McGinness did not immediately return phone and email messages Tuesday and Wednesday.
According to a complaint filed with the Grievance Commission in January and the commission’s report filed in August, McGinness falsified a document as part of the discovery process in a civil case last year. He worked at the Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman law firm at the time but has since started his own practice.
Shortly before a deposition in June 2012, the opposing attorney, David Nelmark, said he had not received answers to a request he’d made that March. McGinness said he had served the documents in March and provided copies that included a certificate of service signed by his assistant.
In looking at the electronic data imbedded in the documents, Nelmark discovered they were created in June. He also hired a handwriting expert who determined the certificate of service emailed by McGinness in June was a copy of one from earlier in March.
McGinness denied they were fake to Nelmark and to a judge in an August 2012 hearing. District Court Judge Douglas Staskal, however, found beyond a reasonable doubt that the allegations were true.
In September, McGinness sent a letter to the Attorney Disciplinary Board saying Staskal’s findings were correct, writing that he did so “with extreme disappointment in myself as an attorney, person and father.”
A complaint was filed this past January alleging three violations of the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct. As the process played out this year, McGinness again admitted to falsifying and misrepresenting the documents and lying about doing so, according to the Grievance Commission.
The commission determined he did so to delay his client’s deposition “to gain a litigation advantage.” In recommending the six-month suspension of McGinness’ law license, the commission’s Jessica Bear called the violations “very serious.”
“Violations of this nature reflect poorly on the Respondent (McGinness), as well as on the legal profession as a whole,” she wrote in the report on the matter.
Paul Gowder, a University of Iowa law professor who does research on ethics, said the courts depend on lawyers telling the truth to ensure a fair process. But, he said, it’s not unheard for a lawyer to miss a filing deadline and instead of going to court to fix it, the person tries to cover it up.
“It’s serious,” he said of McGinness’ actions. “And it’s not particularly rare and it’s not particularly malicious. We’re not talking about stealing money from a client.”
One of the mitigating circumstances the Grievance Commission considered was McGinness’ service to the community, which includes being on the school board and other civic organizations and coaching youth sports.
While the commission commended him for that work, it also suggested it played a role in his misconduct. Bear wrote that all the commitments created a situation in which McGinness was overextended.
Representatives from multiple state agencies and the Iowa Association of School Boards said Wednesday they knew of no laws or ethics guidelines that would prevent McGinness from continuing to serve on the school board.
The Iowa City school board has a code of conduct that says board members are to act ethically, businesslike and lawfully, “including proper use of authority and appropriate decorum when acting as Board members.” It does not mention conduct when they are not acting as board members.
The oath of office school board members take, which is set by state statute, also would not preclude McGinness from continuing to serve, said Mary Gannon, attorney for the Iowa Association of School Boards.
Craig Hansel, the school board secretary and the district’s chief financial officer, said the district leadership team is aware of McGinness’ situation, but they have not had any conversation about what the implications might be for his service to the board.
Iowa City school board President Marla Swesey did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.