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Lawyer hearings secret no more

| Monday, Oct. 31, 2005

Pennsylvania lawyers charged with breaking state conduct codes no longer will have their hearings in secret.

Pennsylvania is joining 40 other states that allow public scrutiny of attorney disciplinary proceedings.

The state Supreme Court ordered last week that disciplinary proceedings be open to public review once formal charges, otherwise known as a petition of discipline, are filed, and after the attorney has had a chance to respond to the charges.

Previously, disciplinary measures became public only if the Supreme Court issued an order of public discipline, such as disbarment or suspension.

That means clients will be able to research a prospective attorney before hiring him or her, said Downtown-based lawyer John Iole.

"It will help further the public's trust by providing access to the system," said Iole, 44, who was a member of the state Disciplinary Board from 1997 to 2003 and its chairman in his last year. "I don't think there was one thing in particular that motivated this change. I think things were working well, but some people acknowledged that it would be better if the public had some insight."

There are exceptions to public disclosure. Private medical or financial records might not always be a part of the public record, Iole said.

"People should be sensitive to the fact that because formal charges are filed doesn't mean they're substantiated. ... I hope there's equal attention to the ultimate decision."

Stacey Vernallis, a lawyer for Downtown-based Goehring, Rutter & Boehm, said full disclosure isn't always the best idea.

"I have serious concerns," Vernallis said. "Many fine lawyers have frivolous or harassing charges brought against them that have no merit."

The new rule bars public access until a disciplinary council has deemed charges are warranted, a safeguard to weed out frivolous complaints, Iole said.

"The new rule makes sense to me," said Sewickley-based attorney Andrew Forsyth. "The disciplinary council is very thorough in the way they screen complaints. It's not really any different than an indictment in a public trial, except that it's criminal charges (with an indictment)."

"What if the charges rise to just below where discipline would be warranted• People should know that."

Forsyth, 51, of Aleppo, has been critical of former Aleppo solicitor Bernard Rubb, who oversaw a year of litigation that has cost the township $450,000, about half of its annual budget. Rubb never has been publicly disciplined.

New Aleppo solicitor Harlan Stone would not discuss whether any charges against Rubb would be warranted, but he said transparency in general is a good thing.

"Sunshine is the best disinfectant," he said.

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