Hearing panel rules Manlove violated rules

CHEYENNE – A hearing panel convened by the Wyoming State Bar found Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove in violation of multiple rules of professional conduct that govern attorneys in the state.

Thursday evening, the panel said that it found Manlove in violation of Rule 1.1, duty of competence; Rule 1.3, duty of diligence; Rule 3.3(a), duty of candor to the tribunal; Rule 3.4(c), duty to follow rules of the tribunal; Rule 8.1(a), material false statements in a disciplinary proceeding; and Rule 8.4(d), which says, “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

The decision was read by hearing panel chair Christopher Hawks about four hours after he and the panel broke to deliberate. Hawks, an attorney based in Jackson, is one of three panel members chosen from the Bar’s full Board of Professional Responsibility, the hearing body for attorney discipline in Wyoming.

Formal charges filed by the Office of Bar Counsel last year with the Wyoming State Bar allege that Manlove mishandled the prosecution of cases in Laramie County and inappropriately dismissed certain cases, and that she created a hostile work environment for employees of the district attorney’s office.

The hearing will resume at 10 a.m. Friday in the Wyoming Ballroom at Little America Hotel and Resort, 2800 W. Lincolnway. Special Bar Counsel Weston W. Reeves and Manlove’s attorney, Stephen Melchior, will each have one hour to argue aggravated and mitigating factors in the case. Following these arguments, the panel will again break to deliberate what level of sanction to recommend to the state Supreme Court, which will have the final say in any discipline.

Manlove will have the opportunity to appeal any decision to the Supreme Court.

In his closing argument Thursday, Reeves called the evidence in the case “overwhelming.” He said it was so extensive that only a “conspiracy” – between all of Laramie County’s judges, the Office of Bar Counsel and several former employees – could answer it.

Reeves said Manlove believes the BPR process is corrupt because the board denied access to an extensive amount of communications related to the judges, and did not allow seven-hour depositions for each of the seven judges. The denial was reasonable, and discovery has limits, he said.

Reeves also questioned Manlove’s testimony related to Special Bar Counsel’s accusation that she had encouraged the unauthorized practice of law. When it came to the suggestion that law enforcement prosecute some of their misdemeanor cases, that practice had been stopped in previous years for good reason, he said: A law enforcement officer couldn’t both prosecute a case and also testify in it.

The Special Bar Counsel commented on Manlove’s explanation about the limitations of the BEAST system, a database used to store the results of law enforcement investigations. Although she said she was “wholly reliant” on law enforcement to provide her evidence, she could have simply checked for the evidence in the BEAST database, or reached out to law enforcement for more information, Reeves said.

“Everything is an attack,” he said. “Everything is somebody else’s fault.”

Reeves also referred to testimony from Laramie County District Judge Catherine Rogers and the deposition of District Judge Thomas Campbell, in which the judges said in various ways that work wasn’t getting done by the district attorney’s office.

Melchior highlighted in his closing statement the unprecedented nature of the formal charges and hearing. He said he was confident that no one in the room, or across the state, had witnessed such “an instance where the Wyoming State Bar and judges have been involved in a report that would have the effect of removing a public official from their elected office.”

This whole ordeal was the result of destructive gossip, he said. The judges’ letter to Bar Counsel Mark Gifford, which expressed concern that Manlove could fulfill the duties of her office based on what they said were failures in personnel and caseload management, might look bad on its face.

But the allegations brought by the judges seem to lead back to just one employee, Melchior said: Caitlin Harper, Manlove’s former deputy district attorney.

After Harper went to the judges, attempts weren’t made to try and find out Manlove’s side of the story, he said. Instead, an “intervention” was held on Dec. 5, 2020, at Manlove’s home with a former governor and a family friend. When Harper later reported things hadn’t improved in the office, the judges decided to file their letter on Dec. 21 of the same year.

This was followed by a “fully developed” petition on Dec. 22, in which Gifford asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to immediately suspend Manlove’s bar license, Melchior said.

After the court denied the petition, the Bar Counsel was on an “absolute crusade” to find anything it could on Manlove. It was an attempt to throw as much as it could at the wall and see what stuck, he said.

Melchior said it is clear Manlove intended to suggest in a letter explaining budget cut impacts that law enforcement agencies’ attorneys may have to prosecute cases – not individual officers.

He also objected to the word “conspiracy” used by Reeves, saying the word – along with the description of it as a “coordinated effort” – was an attempt by Reeves to neatly package the defense’s arguments.

At its core, Melchior said, this case is a separation of powers issue: The judicial branch does not have the power to police the executive branch, which Manlove’s office belongs to, and voters have the right to choose their elected officials.

“It’s foundational to what we stand for as a nation,” Melchior said.

There is “no question” Manlove didn’t do everything perfectly as a manager, he said. But attorneys all over the state are watching for the outcome of these proceedings, wondering what happens if the Bar Counsel is able to tell them how to manage their offices.

The facts in this case may have warranted meetings with the state’s human resources department, and Manlove may have admitted back in 2019 to a discovery violation – but she doesn’t need to be disbarred, and she doesn’t need to be taken out of office with a suspension, Melchior said.

Two witnesses designated as experts by the defense testified Thursday. Both said Manlove had the absolute authority, and even an ethical duty, to reduce her office’s caseload through dismissals following announced state budget cuts.

David LaBahn is the president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national organization that represents and advises elected and unelected prosecutors, along with associated personnel.

LaBahn said it was common for prosecutors to make decisions about which types of cases to prioritize when faced with circumstances like budget cuts.

“Not only can they make those policy decisions, they must make those policy decisions,” he said. It’s the authority of the executive branch to be able to make those determinations without pressure or influence from the judicial branch, he said.

If the community doesn’t agree with an elected prosecutor’s decisions, voters can pick someone else in the next election, LaBahn said. In states without a recall process, often the governor or the attorney general’s office can step in and decide whether to prosecute a particular case.

LaBahn said he wasn’t aware of another incident where a bar association has decided to look at prosecutorial discretion as part of a disciplinary matter.

“This is extraordinary,” he said.

Brent Edison, who formerly served as disciplinary counsel for the North Dakota Supreme Court Disciplinary Board, echoed many of LaBahn’s sentiments. Edison said “disciplinary counsel” was very similar to the position of Bar Counsel in Wyoming.

Edison broke down some of the alleged conduct. He said it was inappropriate, in his opinion, for the Bar to be overseeing something like office management, which should be handled by the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information.

And many of the other allegations seemed to fall under prosecutorial discretion, Edison said.