The Omaha school board attorney conducted herself with “gross negligence” in her handling of the Nancy Sebring situation, according to a grievance that Learning Community Board member Ernie Chambers sent Wednesday to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Chambers' 27-page grievance takes to task OPS attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda for not informing the entire 12-member board about the sexually explicit emails that cost Sebring her superintendent job in Des Moines and, ultimately, her Omaha job.
Chambers challenges the reasons Eynon-Kokrda and Freddie Gray, OPS board president, have stated for keeping secret what they knew about emails Sebring sent to a lover on her Des Moines Public Schools account.
Chambers also criticizes Eynon-Kokrda for routing emails through her law office account to avoid public disclosure and for advising Sebring on how to respond if the racy emails went public. The attorney's first responsibility, he writes, should have been to the board.
Attempts to reach Gray and Eynon-Kokrda for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.
The high court's counsel for discipline investigates grievances and prosecutes violations of the rules that govern the professional conduct of all practicing lawyers in the state.
Attorneys found in violation can be privately or publicly reprimanded. In serious cases, their license to practice law may be suspended or revoked.
“I definitely think something ought to be done,” Chambers said in an interview Wednesday, “and it ought to be serious.”
The latest controversy surrounding Sebring exploded last month after she released a batch of emails to The World-Herald showing that Gray and Eynon-Kokrda knew about the personal emails Sebring sent to a lover on a Des Moines Public Schools computer weeks before newspapers reported that. Sebring told the Omaha officials that the emails to her lover were the cause of her abrupt early departure from her Des Moines post.
The two officials have said Sebring minimized what she had done, so they did not feel the need to share what they knew or launch an investigation to find out more about the racy emails.
They have also said they viewed the matter as a personnel issue and kept the information secret from other board members to preserve their impartiality should they eventually have to consider firing their newly hired superintendent.
Sebring entered into a contract with OPS April 25 but resigned over the flap before her July 1 start date.
Eynon-Kokrda works for Baird Holm, which has performed legal work for the district since the 1960s. Over the past five years, the firm billed OPS more than $13 million for more than 83,500 hours of work.
Board member Justin Wayne, citing legal costs and concerns over Eynon-Kokrda's handling of the Sebring situation, has called for OPS to seek proposals from other law firms to handle the district's legal work. Gray has appointed a board committee to study the board's relationship with its attorney.
Citing state lawyers' rules, Chambers writes in his grievance that Eynon-Kokrda's “client was not Gray or Sebring, but the board collectively acting for OPS.”
“The Rule is turned on its head when the lawyer is the ringleader or mastermind of the actions that are inimical or adverse to the best interests of the client,” he writes.
An attorney can't represent two masters with adverse interests, and attorneys must give their clients enough information to make informed decisions, the grievance says.
Chambers alleges that Eynon-Kokrda violated the oath she took as a lawyer and the code of conduct by scripting how Sebring and Gray would respond should news organizations discover the explicit emails.
The “scripts” amounted to legal advice to someone already represented by another lawyer — as Sebring indicated to Eynon-Kokrda in correspondence — and whose interests conflicted with those of the district, he wrote.
Chambers wrote that Eynon-Kokrda possibly misused her law firm's email account by routing emails through it to avoid public disclosure.
The World-Herald requested copies of communication, including emails, sent or received between May 7 and June 14 by Eynon-Kokrda or OPS board members regarding Sebring. The district provided dozens of emails but didn't disclose the existence of the messages Sebring exchanged with Eynon-Kokrda.
Eynon-Kokrda later said those emails were not in possession of the district and so were not subject to the request.
“Playing the wily lawyer,” Chambers writes, “she used the law firm's email account, thus placing the emails and (hopefully) knowledge of their existence beyond the reach of meddlesome snoopers and busybodies.”
Chambers noted that Eynon-Kokrda emailed Sebring that she didn't forward Sebring's emails to board members “because I want them arguably protected.”
Chambers questions the contention by Gray and Eynon-Kokrda that Sebring misled them about what she had done, noting that Sebring described the emails as “problematic,” contemplated an injunction to prevent their release, compared them to the content in Cosmopolitan magazine and suggested that the emails contained “intimate details of my personal life including my sexual preferences or habits.”
“Neither of them is a spring chicken, but well-grown women of a number of years, who've been around the block a few times,” he wrote.
Chambers wrote that if Gray and Eynon-Kokrda hadn't known the nature of the contents of the emails, it was “highly improbable” that they would go to “such extraordinary lengths” to conceal and withhold information from the board.
Eynon-Kokrda could have easily obtained the explicit emails, read them, determined what was in the district's best interest and advised the board, he wrote.
“Instead, no meaningful effort was made to behave as a prudent lawyer ... bound by the oath and the Rules of Professional Conduct was obliged to behave,” he wrote.
If the state counsel for discipline finds that the grievance is properly filed, Eynon-Kokrda would be given a chance to formally respond to the allegations.
A final disposition in such cases can take months.
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