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Referrals skirted ethics rules

Posted: April 28, 2015 - 11:12pm
Kitchens  Valerie Rowell
Valerie Rowell
Kitchens

A Columbia County sheriff’s deputy who was fired for violating his oath of office, was referring potential clients to personal injury lawyers who paid him to work as an investigator for cases, according to sheriff’s investigative files.

David Kitchens, a former staff sergeant with the sheriff’s office, was charged in March 2013 with computer theft and violation of oath by a public officer in connection with his work for the lawyers. Last week, Kitchens pleaded guilty to the oath violation and was sentenced to three years probation and a $300 fine under the First Offender Act by Superior Court Judge Sheryl B. Jolly. The computer theft charged was dismissed.

An investigative file obtained by the Columbia County News-Times, shows a pattern in which Kitchens repeatedly approached people who had been involved in traffic accidents under the guise that he was performing official duties, and recommended the services of attorneys that he was working with, according to the investigation.

Although Kitchens denied he was directly compensated for referring clients to the lawyers, he admitted he was working as an investigator for attorneys in Atlanta, Metter, Ga. and Augusta.

Kitchens told sheriff’s investigators he referred clients to three different firms: Steve W. Gardner in Atlanta, Bobby Jones and Butch Smith in Metter, and John Claeys of of the Augusta firm, Claeys, McElory-Magruder and Kitchens.

Messages seeking comment were left on Monday with Gardner, Jones, Smith and Claeys. None were returned.

Kitchens told investigators he contacted drivers who were not at fault in traffic accidents and referred them to the lawyers, primarily Gardner. If the lawyer was retained for the case, Kitchens would be hired to do the investigative work.

Kitchens said he was never paid a referral fee.

Although not illegal, such relationships can result in ethics charges against lawyers by the State Bar and result in discipline, including disbarment, Bar officials said.

Ethics rules state that, “a lawyer shall not compensate or give anything of value to a person or organization to recommend or secure the lawyer’s employment by a client, or as a reward for having made a recommendation resulting in the lawyer’s employment by a client.”

The only exception to that rule include referrals from “bona fide lawyer referral services,” which fall under strict guidelines, which do not include direct referrals from individuals, bar officials said.

Kitchens admitted, however, to paying referral fees to an Augusta towing company on behalf of Gardner, for the owner’s referral of potential clients.

Kitchens told investigators he paid $300 to John Franklin of All American Towing for two referrals, but claimed he was not reimbursed by Gardner for the payments.

Franklin, however, told police Kitchens said the money came from Gardner and that Kitchens also supplied him with business cards from Gardner’s firm with Kitchens name on them.

When contacted by police, Gardner denied that he had employed Kitchens and said he only gave him money as a donation for a charity bike ride. Gardner explained that the business cards were not for solicitation, but only for “identification purposes,” the report said.

Other attorneys contacted by police admitted to employing Kitchens for investigative services. Smith told investigators he didn’t think Kitchens made “out right” referrals to his firm. Claeys told police he had employed Kitchens to photograph accident scenes and paid him by check. He said there had been no referrals.

One witness interviewed by police, however, contradicted Claeys in one instance.

Marcie Bradley told police that Kitchens contacted her in 2012 seeking to find the owener of a suitcase that was recovered at and accident scene. After Bradley said the suitcase was not hers, Kitchens inquired whether she had a lawyer and suggested Claeys. Bradley told police she subsequently hired Claeys for her case.

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