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Bar chides lawyer for ethics breach

Medford city administrator says admonition letter lacks needed severity

The Oregon State Bar has admonished Medford attorney Bob Robertson for poor conduct based on his actions while defending the rights of Opp Mine property owners ' which includes himself ' in a case against Jacksonville and Jackson County.

According to Oregon State Bar media relations officer Kateri Walsh, an admonition letter is the lowest level of disciplinary action permissible in an arguable ethics violation.

City Administrator Paul Wyntergreen said he is not happy Robertson merely received a slap on the wrist.

We are not pleased with the level of censure, he said.

Walsh said Robertson has seven letters of complaint and inquiry in his file, including a letter filed by Jacksonville city attorney Jud Holtey and Jackson County attorney Michael Jewett (acting on his own behalf).

The Opp Mine owners need a conditional use permit from the county in order to extract aggregate from their claim. When Robertson and fellow owners met strong opposition from nearby homeowners, the county and the city, some say Robertson became overzealous.

In fall 2000, Holtey and Jewett sent a formal letter of complaint to the Oregon State Bar. Their chief concern was an Aug. 18, 2000, letter Robertson sent to Opp Mine neighbors.

Robertson's letter read in part:

It is our firm belief that the City of Jacksonville, in filing a request for a hearing, has not only violated Oregon statutes, but is also attempting to interfere intentionally with the contractual right of the applicant as well as historic, vested rights. As a result, the applicant intends to file a lawsuit against the City of Jacksonville as well as any other persons who attempt to interfere with the issuance of this Conditional Use Permit. ?

This letter is written to place you on notice that the applicant will treat any interference with the issuance of the Conditional Use Permit by Jackson County as interference with a contractual vested property right of the applicant. Therefore, I trust that there will be no interference by anyone other than the City of Jacksonville.

Holtey and Jewett say Robertson's letter was unethical and threatened the neighbors with lawsuits should they voice any opposition. The attorneys say the clear purpose of the letter was to deter witnesses from testifying at an Aug. 21, 2000, public hearing.

Wyntergreen said there are no longer any charges pending against the city of Jacksonville from principals in the Opp Mine. However, he still maintains Robertson's letter was unethical.

We were quite shocked to see an attorney doing that to citizen participants, said Wyntergreen. We are very concerned at the chilling effect.

In the letter of admonition, written by Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Mary A. Cooper, there is no mention of Robertson's alleged intimidation of area neighbors.

Holtey and Jewett also claimed Robertson deliberately misrepresented facts and failed to notify his intent to appeal a Land Use Board of Appeals permit denial after entering into an agreement with Jackson County not to do so.

The admonition letter stated Robertson was out of compliance with disciplinary rules when he failed to inform the city of Jacksonville and Jackson County that he had filed a second notice of appeal to LUBA after his first appeal was rejected for failure to attach a filing fee.

Robertson maintained his failure to notify was based on a simple misunderstanding.

In a second area of discipline, the bar noted Robertson discovered his filing error in December 2000 but did not inform his own clients of the possible impact of the error until more than a year later.

Walsh said the State Professional Responsibility Board is the decision-making body for the Oregon State Bar. It performs the function of a grand jury by hearing complaints and deciding what, if any, disciplinary action is necessary.

A letter of admonition doesn't rise to the level of a formal prosecution, said Walsh. But Robertson's actions may be less than the public has a right to expect from an attorney, she added.

Robertson is no longer attorney of record for Opp mine owners Bernadine Wynnyk or Sandra and Frank Hardin.

Attorneys Robertson, Holtey and Jewett did not return calls requesting comment.

Sanne Specht is a free-lance writer living in Rogue River. Reach her at RogueRiverGal@aol.com