Judge decides DA has conflict


A Clark County judge disqualified District Attorney Steve Wolfson from prosecuting a felony drunken driving case after finding "that a true and extreme conflict of interest exists" between Wolfson and the defendant, a former client.

Senior District Judge J. Charles Thompson issued the order, filed May 1, in the case against Edris Ghani.

The case is one of several in which defendants have sought to disqualify the newly appointed district attorney based on his past work as their lawyer. At least two other cases were delayed this week because of pending motions to disqualify Wolfson.

Attorney Gabriel Grasso, who now represents Ghani, said he knows of no other cases in which a judge has ruled on the conflict issue involving Wolfson, a former defense attorney and Las Vegas city councilman who was appointed to his new position in late January.

Thompson ordered that a special prosecutor be appointed to prosecute Ghani, a San Diego man accused of causing a fatal car crash near the Strip in December 2010. Christina Konarski, 21, of Las Vegas was killed.

The judge made his ruling after conducting an evidentiary hearing.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Rutledge said his office will appeal Thompson's decision to the Nevada Supreme Court, and the judge agreed to stay his ruling pending the appeal.

According to the motion to disqualify the district attorney's office in the Ghani case, Wolfson personally represented the defendant between December 2010 and July 2011, when Ghani replaced him.

"During this seven month period, Ghani relied on the attorney-client privilege and shared confidential information with Wolfson," according to the motion.

In his opposition to the defense motion, Rutledge argued that Wolfson "has sufficiently screened himself from any conflict related to defendant's case."

The document also noted that Wolfson issued a memo in March to all lawyers in the criminal division of the district attorney's office informing them that an "ethical shield" had been created regarding his former clients.

"Furthermore, Mr. Wolfson made explicitly clear that any questions regarding any potential conflicts were to be directed to Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens, not Mr. Wolfson," Rutledge wrote.

Owens supervises the 75 prosecutors who work in the criminal division.

"Finally, it should be noted that the Nevada Supreme Court has never gone so far as to disqualify a prosecutor's office where proper and sufficient screening mechanisms were in place," Rutledge wrote. "The prosecutorial function in this case can be carried out impartially, without the breach of any privileged communication, and the district attorney's office should not be disqualified as a whole."

Wolfson is not the first defense lawyer to fill the role of district attorney in Clark County.

Stewart Bell, now a senior judge, also worked as a defense attorney in private practice before becoming the county's top prosecutor.

"The only distinction between the two of us is I planned for months in advance that I was going to make the transition," Bell said Wednesday.

The Clark County Commission appointed Wolfson to serve out the remaining 3½ years of David Roger's unexpired term after Roger stepped down.

On the other hand, Bell went through a primary and general election before voters chose him in 2004.

"I was divesting myself of cases, not taking on any new cases for months," he said.

Bell does not recall ever facing a motion to disqualify the district attorney's office from a case based on his prior representation of the defendant.

"I could see this coming and planned ahead," he said. He admits he also was busy campaigning.

Bell served as district attorney from early 1995 through the end of 2002. He said the state has no "hard and fast rule" for determining when a judge should disqualify a district attorney who previously represented a defendant being prosecuted by his office.

"You have to look at these on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

 

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