Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell is rejecting a private ethics sanction from the Kentucky Bar Association.
As a result he is facing harsher penalties and increased scrutiny from critics, who are openly recruiting former Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Stengel to run against O’Connell next year.
In January, O’Connell wrote a stinging letter to Jefferson district court judges demanding they put a stop certain legal maneuvers in DUI cases. A number of judges and defense lawyers called O’Connell’s letter “inappropriate,” and asked for ethics sanctions to be filed.
The Courier-Journal reported this week an inquiry commission ruled on May 8 that O’Connell violated rules barring attorneys from contacting judges without the other side present.
Legal observers are surprised O’Connell made the matter public, and many critics acknowledge it has given momentum to efforts at recruiting Stengel to take on the incumbent county attorney in 2014.
“I don’t know if you want to call it arrogance, feistiness or defiance. But I think (O’Connell) has made it clear that he’s going to do what he wants and doesn’t care what anybody has to say or do about it,” says defense attorney Christian Mascagni.
“I call tell you there are many private attorneys who would love Mr. Stengel to run against him. I believe that especially in light of what’s come out now, if Mr. Stengel were to run—and we’re all hoping that he will—I think he would be a very tough candidate for Mr. O’Connell.”
In a telephone interview, Stengel told WFPL he is looking at three different races next year. And while dozens of defense attorneys have been urging him to run against O’Connell, he won’t comment on those intentions.
“I just don’t want to go into what they are right now,” says Stengel. “I can tell you the defense bar and district court is pretty up in the air. I can understand where Mike is coming from, but I’ve heard the outrage from the defense bar.”
After serving 15 years as the county’s chief prosecutor, Stengel, who is a Democrat, announced his retirement in 2011. But even then he said he wanted to “do something else.”
O’Connell is also a Democrat, who told WFPL in April he was seeking re-election.
O’Connell was unavailable to comment for this story, but attorneys representing him in the ethics inquiry defend the letter to district judges as a matter of public concern. His lawyers argue the KBA is misusing its authority and sanctioning the county attorney is a violation of his First Amendment rights.
The county attorney is also embroiled in legal battles with defense lawyers over refusals to expunge misdemeanor convictions and a feud Chief District Judge Ann Bailey Smith over a traffic school program his office launched this year.
In Jefferson County, drivers can avoid court and get their traffic citations dismissed by paying $150 to take a two-hour online course, which is expected to generate millions in needed revenue for the county attorney’s office.
The General Assembly enacted legislation allowing county attorneys to implement the program, but Smith said offenders should also pay the $134 court costs and O’Connell is ignoring the law by allowing drivers to dismiss their charges by taking the class.
O’Connell invited the media to cover a heated debate between himself and Smith during a hearing, saying she is the only judge who took issue with the program. Since then Smith has continued to compel motorists to pay court costs even if they have completed the traffic school class.
Defense attorney Benham Sims says these string controversies illustrate O’Connell is not only overstepping legal boundaries, but has an intemperate leadership style.
“It’s a series of missteps and quite frankly he has displayed in public and in private an inability to control his temper,” he says. “Instead of alienating judges, alienating the bar and alienating people on his own staff, Dave Stengel worked with his criminal justice partners to improve the cause of justice. I think he would be an outstanding candidate, and I don’t know of an attorney who wouldn’t support Mr. Stengel over Mr. O’Connell. I can’t think of a single one.”