Disciplinary tribunal dings Cahnman
Former alderman faces suspension
A former Springfield alderman is facing a possible 90-day suspension from his legal practice by the Illinois Supreme Court.
The case against former Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman argued by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission raises questions about the ability of elected officials who work as attorneys to represent clients with cases involving the jurisdiction that an attorney represents as an elected official.
An ARDC review board on July 11 ruled that the former alderman erred when he represented Calvin Christian, who had a history of suing the city, in traffic court. The board recommended that Cahnman be suspended for 90 days; ARDC administrator Jerry Larkin had sought a six-month suspension. The Illinois Supreme Court will make the final call.
Christian had received numerous traffic citations from Springfield police and claimed that he was the subject of retaliation by police upset because he had requested officers’ disciplinary files and sued when he was denied. Christian prevailed in a 2010 lawsuit against the city filed under the state Freedom of Information Act and again in a second FOIA lawsuit, which also sought police disciplinary files, filed in 2011.
Christian filed a third FOIA lawsuit, again seeking police disciplinary files, in 2013. The city acknowledged destroying the files sought by Christian after receiving his FOIA request and settled the case for more than $100,000 in an episode that came to be known as Shredgate. Shortly after filing his third FOIA lawsuit against the city, Christian filed a federal lawsuit alleging that police had violated his civil rights by stopping him in retaliation for requesting disciplinary files. The federal lawsuit was dismissed last year after Christian’s lawyers sought to withdraw from the case after Christian pleaded guilty to traffic infractions he claimed that he had received as punishment for requesting files.
Cahnman represented Christian in several traffic cases dating back to 2010, including a case that was the basis of his federal lawsuit alleging that police had violated his civil rights. Meanwhile, Cahnman, as an alderman, participated in four executive sessions held in 2013 during which the city council discussed Christian’s pending FOIA lawsuit as well as his federal case.
Cahnman has maintained that he had thought that the cases in which he represented Christian involved routine, minor traffic offenses and didn’t realize that he was representing Christian in a case that was the basis of the federal civil rights lawsuit until Jon Gray Noll, an attorney who defended the city against lawsuits brought by Christian, brought the matter to his attention. Cahnman during an ARDC disciplinary hearing called that a “game changer.” Shortly after Noll notified him that he was representing Christian in a case that was part of the federal civil rights lawsuit, Cahnman withdrew as Christian’s lawyer in all pending traffic matters.
An ARDC hearing board last year found that Cahnman had acted dishonestly by talking about Christian’s pending lawsuits during executive sessions without informing other aldermen and the mayor that he was representing Christian in pending traffic cases. However, the hearing board last year rejected a contention that Cahnman had a conflict of interest. Both Cahnman and the ARDC’s administrator appealed the hearings board decision to the review board, which last week ruled that Cahnman, in fact, did have a conflict of interest and had also acted dishonestly. In his appeal, Cahnman argued that he had done nothing wrong.
In its ruling, the review board wrote that it was not so much concerned with routine traffic cases as the quantity of cases involving Christian, who had received hundreds of citations from Springfield police. It should have been obvious, the board ruled, that Christian was no ordinary client.
“As an alderman, (Cahnman) recognized that he had fiduciary responsibility to ‘do what’s best for the city;’ yet, Mr. Christian’s particular set of circumstances was a civil rights case waiting to happen,” the board wrote.
The city wasn’t the only entity that stood to suffer, the board concluded. As a traffic court lawyer, Cahnman wasn’t in a position to aggressively challenge officers who had ticketed Christian without undermining the city’s position in civil court.
“He…has a choice to make – assail the police officer’s actions or credibility and and thereby potentially do harm to the city, or go easy on the police officer and thereby fail to be an uncompromising advocate for his client,” the board wrote.
The board rejected Cahnman’s explanation that he hadn’t known that traffic cases in which he was Christian’s lawyer were part of the federal civil rights lawsuit.
“It is simply not believable that, given the circumstances, he was unaware of the connection between the…traffic cases and Mr. Christian’s civil rights lawsuit until Mr. Noll pointed it out,” the board wrote. “As Mr. Christian’s attorney, it was his duty to know.”
In rejecting the ARDC administrator’s call for a six-month suspension, the review board found that Cahnman did not intend to harm his clients, nor did he do any actual harm to clients. The board also found that Cahnman has taken on cases pro bono and noted that four character witnesses had testified that he has a reputation for honesty and integrity. In its ruling, the board also wrote that it believed Cahnman will conform his behavior to ethical obligations in the future.
Cahnman, citing advice of counsel, declined comment.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.