The Florida Bar has opened an investigation into one of the lawyers who signed on this week to represent Michael Drejka, the man who shot and killed Markeis McGlockton in what authorities at first called a stand your ground case.
A spokeswoman for the Bar said Thursday that the complaint is related to solicitation and centers on a visit Lysa Clifton made to Drejka at the Pinellas County Jail on Tuesday. The office declined to release more details, citing confidentiality rules.
Clifton deferred comment to a publicist, who sent this statement: "I have not been informed by the Florida Bar that I am under investigation, so I really can’t talk about a complaint I haven’t seen." She also denied during a news conference this week that she had solicited Drejka, who is facing a manslaughter charge in the shooting.
According to Florida Bar rules, a lawyer can’t "solicit in person ... professional employment from a prospective client with whom the lawyer has no family or prior professional relationship when a significant motive for the lawyer’s doing so is the lawyer’s pecuniary gain."
In an interview Wednesday morning, Clifton said she visited Drejka at the jail. They "carried on a conversation," she said. He asked her if she was a lawyer. She answered yes. He asked why she visited him, and she said, "because everybody deserves a chance at a good defense," she said. Then he asked her if she would represent him. She agreed. Two prominent Tampa Bay lawyers, John Trevena and Bryant Camareno, later signed on with her.
The meeting presents another potential issue, legal ethics experts say, because Clifton had visited Drejka after he had been appointed a public defender at his first appearance in court and before she formally filed to represent him in court.
Typically, a lawyer interested in representing a client who already has counsel is supposed to check with the existing attorney before meeting with the client. Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger told the Times that Clifton did not clear it with his office.
The Bar has rules against that conduct as well, and it’s generally an ethical no-no, said Teresa Reid, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
"It’s just unseemly," she said. "You know somebody is represented, you go talk to that person. You don’t go and talk to their client directly. I always want to protect my client ... and I shouldn’t have to protect my client from other lawyers."
Clifton still had not filed a notice of appearance Wednesday morning, when she met with Drejka again along with Camareno and Trevena. Dillinger complained to the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The sheriff told the private attorneys they needed to work it out with the public defenders.
"Lawyers should and need to adhere to the Florida Bar rules and the ethical rules of professional responsibility," the sheriff, who is also a lawyer, said. "But it’s up to the lawyers to make sure they follow the rules. It’s not up to us as the Sheriff’s Office and the operators of the jail to police what lawyers do and don’t do."
General visitation happens via video monitor in a building near the jail. To get into the actual jail facility, you must be a professional visitor. Typically those visitors fall into two categories, Gualtieri said: medical and legal.
Years ago, Gualtieri said, only the attorney of record could visit inmates in the jail. Facing pushback from lawyers, the sheriff said he changed the policy to allow any lawyer in good standing into the jail. That allows lawyers who, say, were contacted by a defendant’s family member to have a meeting with an inmate.
According to jail visitor logs, Clifton signed in as an attorney at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday and left about 45 minutes later. When inmates are pulled to meet with visitors, they are not told who the visitor is.
"Beyond that, once she is alone with him in the (visitation) room, I can’t speak to what’s said or not said or anything along those lines," the sheriff said.
Trevena, a longtime defense lawyer based in Largo, said Thursday that he "had no knowledge of the details of her initial contact with Mr. Drejka" and didn’t know she hadn’t filed notice of her representation in court ahead of their meeting with Drejka on Wednesday morning. Clifton and Camareno asked him to join the case, he said.
Camareno, a Tampa defense lawyer, declined to comment Thursday.
There are several questions to consider in deciding whether Clifton violated any Bar rules, said Charles Rose, a Stetson University College of Law professor. What was the purpose of her visit? Did she have a relationship with Drejka outside of it? Did someone refer her?
But even if there are no formal policies against certain behavior, Reid, the UF Law professor, raised a point she teaches her students.
"Ethics say they cannot cover every single possible human interaction that occurred," she said. "And that’s why it’s left up to individual lawyers to use their own sense of fairness and ethics and judgment."
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.