Law professors push for disbarment, sanctions against Kellyanne Conway

Posted at 4:26 PM, Feb 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-28 16:26:14-05

White House advisor Kellyanne Conway speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, on Feb. 23. (MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Fifteen law professors have filed a misconduct complaint against Trump adviser and licensed attorney Kellyanne Conway for a trove of ethical violations, including lying to the media and peddling the first daughter’s fashion line on live TV.

The group of attorneys have requested that both the D.C. Bar and the New Jersey’s Office of Attorney Ethics professionally discipline Conway, a George Washington University-trained lawyer licensed in both New Jersey and Washington D.C. They’ve asked for “sanctions” against her — a vague term for punishments up to disbarment.

“We felt that her conduct was outrageous,” said Bennett Gershman, a professor of law at Pace University and one of the letter’s signatories. “Lawyers have higher ethical obligations that non-lawyers, and lawyers working for the government at the highest level have even higher obligations.”

Even if Conway is not currently practicing law — she’s serving as counselor to the president, a communications and strategy position — because she holds a law license, she’s held to the same ethical standards as working lawyers, Gershman said. Those ethical obligations include being honest and avoiding deceit.

The letter pointed to four examples of Conway’s “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

“We believe that, at one time, Ms. Conway understood her ethical responsibilities as a lawyer and abided by them,”the scathing letter read. “But she is currently acting in a way that brings shame upon the legal profession.”

The law professors pointed to Conway’s repeated referrals to the nonexistent “Bowling Green massacre” as a chief example of this. Inthree separate interviews between Jan. 29 and Feb. 3, she mentioned the alleged terror attack when defending Trump’s highly controversial executive order closing U.S. border to travelers from seven mostly-Muslim countries.

Conway also told reporters that former President Barack Obama banned Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. —another falsehood.

The letter further condemned Conway’s handling of media reports about the size of the Inauguration Day crowd. When a reporter claimed that she was inflating the numbers, she insisted that she was instead providing“alternative facts.”

“’Alternative facts’ are not facts at all; they are lies,” the professors wrote.

Gershman said that any one of those falsehoods might not have triggered the professors’ letter — but the back-to-back lies, all in the span of about two weeks, were too much to ignore.

“That, to us, was just extraordinary for someone who is representing the president,” he said.

On top of the three dishonest comments to the media, the law professors said that they were concerned that Conwayendorsed Ivanka Trump’s fashion line during a Feb. 9 interview with Fox News, telling viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.” While the comment doesn’t violate lawyer ethics against lying, it may have broken federal ethics that forbid conflicts of interest.

“We offer that example as part of the overall picture [of Conway’s behavior],” said Abbe Smith, a law professor at Georgetown University and another signatory, adding that lawyers involved in government must follow both government and legal ethics.

Conway’s D.C. license is already suspended for failing to pay dues, but her New Jersey one is still active. Each association will choose if it wants to investigate and punish Conway. The bodies could choose to disbar her, punitively suspend her license, make a statement condemning her actions or more rigorously define the limits of ethical boundaries.

“I’m not expecting the best possible outcome,” Gershman said, noting the D.C. Bar usually is usually hesitant to weigh sanctions against lawyers. He’d like to see the organization disbar her, suspend her or make a statement against her behavior, he said.

“But I am hopeful that the bar council will take a very close look at this,” he added.

Smith said she hopes that the letter prompts the two bodies to weigh in on the ethical limits and encourages a profession-wide conversation about them.

“The legal profession is a self-regulating profession,” she said. “We pride ourselves on that.”