No word on discipline for River Forest state rep who settled defamation suit
A Cook County judge last year ruled Chris Welch had defamed two attorneys and ordered hm to pay compensation. | Rob Hart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 8, 2013 6:21AM
RIVER FOREST — Six months after new 7th District State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch settled a libel suit filed against him by two fellow attorneys, it remains unclear if Welch will face any disciplinary action from a commission overseeing attorney conduct.
But any action by that panel -- the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission -- would require a formal complaint from an outside party.
And for now, it can’t be determined if anyone has actually filed that complaint.
“All lawyers have an obligation to report certain misconduct to us,” said James Grogan, deputy administrator for the Disciplinary Commission.
But the commission does not comment on charges until and unless a case is found to have merit.
“I’d have to say I can’t confirm or deny anything,” Grogan said. “I don’t want to address the case because I can’t.”
The matter started back in 2008, when Burton S. Odelson, a partner in the Odelson and Sterk law firm, filed a defamation lawsuit over comments he said Welch had made on a blog called “Proviso Insider.”
One anonymous post suggested Odelson and his law partner, Mark Sterk acted unethically and illegally.
“Sources tell the Insider that Burt Odelson and Mark Sterk of Odelson & Sterk, Ltd law firm will be indicted next by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald,” a post cited in the lawsuits read. “Sources tell the Insider that Mark Sterk was the attorney advising SD89 Board member Ric Cervone on how to lie to a grand jury.”
“Are Burt Odelson and Mark Sterk crooks? Will they be indicted next?” the post concluded.
Welch initially denied any connection to the posts, but a forensic examination of the website found it was linked to his work computer.
On Oct. 20, 2011 Cook County Judge Eileen Mary Brewer ruled Welch’s “statements are deemed defamatory per se,” and ordered compensation for Odelson and Sterk.
Welch first tried to have High School District 209, where he was board president, pay a reported $400,000 settlement as well as $38,500 in legal bills in early 2012, arguing he was covered under the school district’s liability insurance.
But in February 2012, a state-appointed financial oversight panel handling the school district’s finances rejected that claim and refused to allow the district to pay for the settlement or the legal bills.
In July, Welch settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.
At question now are Illinois Rules of Professional Responsibility set by the Illinois Supreme Court that govern attorney conduct.
One of thoese rules (Rule 8.3) requires a lawyer to tell the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission if they know that another lawyer has committed certain acts of misconduct.
And under Rule 8.4, that would include when a lawyer commits “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”
Calls to Welch seeking comment were made to his Westchester and Springfield offices, as well as his law office and his personal cell phone. He did return any of the calls.
Grogan said the disciplinary commission does not, as a matter of policy, discuss complaints that have not been found to have merit and been scheduled for a formal hearing board.
The commission says “eighty to ninety percent” of all cases are closed after a preliminary or formal investigation. The commission does not comment on charges until and unless a case is found to have merit.
“We had 6,300 grievances last year,” Grogan said. He said the Illinois Supreme Court created its own internal court system for policing attorneys.
Speaking hypothetically, Grogan said if a complaint is received regarding an attorney’s conduct, “We’d usually write to the lawyer, and ask, ‘What’s your position on this?’”
Grogan said the entire process could take “between four months to a year, depending on the case’s complexity.”
Clifford Scott-Rudnick has taught a Professional Responsibility class the past eight years at the John Marshall Law School.
“It doesn’t appear there’s been anything resulting in a complaint,” Scott-Rudnick said when asked about Welch. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in the hopper.”
Both Scott-Rudnick and Grogan stressed the major distinction between criminal and civil misconduct.
“With civil cases it’s a little bit different,” Grogan said. “Although there may be an ethical (violation) the misconduct must be (proved) by clear and convincing evidence. The bar is pretty high.”
There is also a distinction between a “grievance” and “complaint.” Any accusation by a judge, attorney or other person regarding lawyer misconduct is a grievance. When a grievance is investigated, found to have merit and is forwarded to the Hearing Board, it becomes an official complaint.
Scott-Rudnick also said it can take awhile for a complaint to be filed; he knows of some that took about two years, he added.
Scott-Rudnick said there have been a few recent cases of lawyers censured or suspended for filing frivolous defamation lawsuits, but none that he knew of regarding discipline after an attorney lost a defamation lawsuit.
“Just losing a lawsuit, even if there’s money paid out, doesn’t mean (the ARDC will bring sanctions),” he said. “It has to involve (being) frivolous or acting recklessly or dishonestly. The ones who got nailed are the ones who were really over the top.”