HARLINGEN — Days before former City Commissioner Kori Marra was to appear in court for the criminal complaint filed against her, she filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas against City Attorney Roxann Cotroneo, alleging Cotroneo violated attorney-client privilege.
“Cotroneo represents the city of Harlingen, all the commissioners as a group and individually, and she violated attorney client privilege,” Marra said Wednesday. “That is completely against the oath she took as an attorney and she cannot be trusted from here forward with other conversations.”
In response to Marra’s complaint, the city has hired former Assistant U.S. Attorney and former congressional aide Robert Bennett to defend Cotroneo.
Bennett has requested that Marra withdraw her “mean-spirited grievance” since it was filed on the eve of the trial when Marra knew that Cotroneo would testify.
The grievance may have been a threat, Bennett said, and therefore could be “actionable retaliation” or an “attempt to intimidate a witness,” and “may be the subject of further investigation.”
Marra was recently convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine for failing to file a conflict of interest affidavit for a Sept. 2010 City Commission meeting concerning an agenda item that involved the downtown district where Marra owns a business.
In e-mails exchanged by Marra and Cotroneo in June 2010, Marra was seeking Cotroneo’s advice about whether she could “sit in the audience and listen/participate in any fashion,” at the meeting, according to an message dated June 28.
Cotroneo responded to that e-mail saying that her “legal advice is very conservative and is the safest resolution.” She included the conflict of interest portion of the Texas Local Government Code and highlighted “shall abstain from further participation in the matter.”
These and other e-mails between Marra and Cotroneo were submitted as evidence by Special Prosecuter Luis Saenz during Marra’s trial.
Marra’s attorney argued that the e-mails should be excluded because they included attorney-client privileged information, but the judge denied the motion.
“What is not said and is undisputed is that the Cameron County Grand Jury subpoenaed the e-mail communications between Marra and Cotroneo,” Bennett said in a Nov. 23 e-mail. “A refusal to provide the requested information would be illegal. Cotroneo was required to provide information to the grand jury, and she fulfilled her legal obligation. After the grand jury received the documents in question, Special Prosecutor (Luis) Saenz had the responsibility to providing them to counsel for Marra.”
Marra alleges in her grievance that Cotroneo “gave those privileged e-mails and legal advice to Saenz. She therefore knowingly and willingly violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 105 and violated my privilege to refuse to disclose and prevent any other person from disclosing our confidential conversations,” Bennett stated.
Marra said in the complaint that Cotroneo was “my attorney, paid for by the city.”
Marra on Wednesday said she plans to amend her complaint to include that Cotroneo also violated attorney-client privilege when she provided these same emails to Frank Zabarte, who Cotroneo hired to investigate the original ethics complaint.
“We will argue that Cotroneo is the attorney for the City of Harlingen and cannot be ‘my city attorney’ as Marra has alleged,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “Once Marra is in an adversarial position with the city as she was in refusing to file the conflict of interest form, Cotroneo could not be her attorney. Since Cotroneo was not the attorney for Marra, there is no privilege that attaches to the communication that was shared.”
Marra said, “Cotroneo thinks so lowly of the attorney-client privilege that she could possibly violate it further for her own political or personal gain. The city of Harlingen and the citizens deserve a city attorney that respects the oath that she took.”
Bennett said Cotroneo did not engage in unethical behavior but has now been subjected to a false complaint “because she did her job.”
He calls Marra’s complaint “inappropriate and vindictive action by a convicted individual who has been found guilty of an ethics violation.”
Bennett has represented judges, lawyers and doctors in matters involving professional misconduct before the Texas Medical Board and Commission for Lawyer Discipline, and the Commission for Judicial Conduct.
Marra is currently appealing her conviction, a process that her attorney said could take up to two years. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.