Suit alleges Hattiesburg city attorney violated attorney-client privilege


By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest components of the U.S. legal system, and violating that trust might prove costly for Hattiesburg’s city attorney.

A Hattiesburg voter whose absentee ballot went missing during last year’s mayoral race is suing the city attorney for $600,000 after the attorney used information from a 2009 case to get his vote thrown out, according to the suit filed in Hattiesburg’s 12th Circuit Court.

PRIViLEGED? Hattiesburg’s city attorney may be in hot water over some election hanky panky.

The city attorney, Charles E. Lawrence Jr., ordered a check of the FBI-run National Crime Information Center database on Arthur Smith during the contest trial after last June’s controversial mayoral race. According to the suit, he allegedly did so “to prevent a crime from being committed.”

Lawrence declined to comment on the suit and has 30 days to respond.

Democrat Johnny DuPree, now serving his fourth term as mayor and a candidate for governor in 2011, beat his challenger, Republican Dave Ware, by 37 votes in June. Ware contested the election, citing several irregularities, including a missing absentee ballot that was later revealed to be Smith’s.

Forrest County Circuit Judge William Coleman threw out the results of the first election and ordered a second. The second vote, monitored by the Department of Justice and the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office, was held and DuPree’s margin of victory was 202 votes. Smith voted for and campaigned for Ware.

“It’s just amazing to me that Arthur Smith’s ballot can just be thrown in the trash, his civil rights violated and he’s been humiliated and harassed because of this,” said Thomas Garmon, who is editor of a political blog, The Hattiesburg Patriot, that focuses on local politics. “The only reason Charles Lawrence stooped that low was to protect his power base. Based on my experience in Hattiesburg, none of this surprises me.”

Smith and Lawrence have had dealings before, according to the suit. In 2009, before Lawrence became the city attorney, Smith consulted with Lawrence on some misdemeanor check charges he faced in Texas. After meeting with Lawrence three times, Smith went with a Texas attorney to deal with the charges.

According to the Mississippi Bar Association’s rules of conduct, attorney-client privilege can only be breached in certain situations absent the client’s approval. One is if not revealing the information will result in bodily harm. Another situation is if the lawyer believes not disclosing the information will result in a crime that substantially affects the property or financial interest of another.

Preventing “substantial injury” to the property or financial interests of another, securing legal advice about the lawyer’s compliance with the rules of attorney-client privilege and in the defense of the lawyer in a dispute between the client and his counsel are the other reasons cited by the MBA.

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