COLUMBUS, Ohio — The attorney whose email tip to Jim Tressel launched a scandal that led to his forced resignation as Ohio State’s football coach and possible NCAA discipline for the school is being investigated for legal misconduct by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Sanctions against lawyer Christopher Cicero could range from a public reprimand to permanently losing his law license.
State Disciplinary Counsel Jonathan Coughlan alleged in a filing Friday that Cicero violated professional conduct rules by revealing information from interviews with a potential client.
Cicero, a former Ohio State football player in the early 1980s, met with Columbus tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife on April 2, 2010 and again on April 15, 2010 to discuss whether Cicero would represent him in a federal drug trafficking case, according to the filing.
During an April 1, 2010 raid on Rife’s business, federal agents seized several pieces of Ohio State football memorabilia, including gold pendants, autographed photos and championship rings, the filing said.
During an April 2 meeting with Cicero, Rife explained his involvement in criminal activity and also explained how he acquired the Ohio State memorabilia, the filing said.
“During the meeting, Rife expressed his concern that their conversation would remain confidential,” the filing said. Cicero “assured Rife that everything Rife told respondent would remain confidential.”
In fact, the filing said, Cicero immediately emailed Tressel to tell him of the discovery of the memorabilia.
“Just passing this on to you,” Cicero said in his email to Tressel. “Have a Blessed Easter.”
Cicero sent two more emails to Tressel on April 16, a day after a second meeting with Rife.
Tressel and Cicero eventually traded a dozen emails on the subject.
A message left with Cicero on Monday was not immediately returned.
The filing against Cicero alleges he proposed an aggressive legal strategy that would return the memorabilia to Rife within a week and likely meant no jail time.
Rife met with several other attorneys, all of whom said the opposite, that Rife would go to jail.
Rife ultimately hired another lawyer. But state Supreme Court rules are clear that the attorney-client privilege extends to cases involving discussions with a prospective client.
Tressel had signed an NCAA compliance form in September saying he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing by athletes. His contract, in addition to NCAA rules, specified that he had to tell his superiors or compliance department about any potential NCAA rules violations. Yet he did not tell anyone, except to forward emails to Ted Sarniak, reportedly a “mentor” for quarterback Terrelle Pryor back in his hometown of Jeannette, Pa.
Under an agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Rife will plead guilty this month to charges of drug trafficking and money laundering and cooperate with authorities.
The charges and Rife’s tentative plea agreement don’t mention the sale of the memorabilia.
Rife could face a prison sentence of 20 years although would likely receive much less under federal sentencing rules.
Pryor announced last week that he would not return to the team for his senior season. He had already been suspended by Ohio State and the NCAA for the first five games of the 2011 season for accepting improper benefits in the form of cash and discounted tattoos from Rife.
On Monday, Pryor hired an agent and took steps toward making himself available for an NFL supplemental draft.
The NCAA is investigating all aspects of Ohio State’s athletic program, particularly the football team.
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