A lawyer who urged the State Bar of Nevada to investigate allegations of ethics violations related to Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto's handling of a lawsuit to block a federal health reform law got his wish -- except he's the one being investigated.
On Tuesday, an official for the state bar said the bar is investigating a grievance claim that accuses Las Vegas lawyer Jacob Hafter of violating multiple rules of professional conduct with his criticism of Masto.
"An investigation and a grievance file has been opened in relation to Mr. Hafter himself," said Phil Pattee, assistant bar counsel for the State Bar of Nevada.
Pattee emphasized that the bar has made no finding of misconduct against Hafter but is investigating whether he violated rules that prohibit attorneys from knowingly making false statements or engaging in fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
He also said that since receiving another letter Tuesday from Hafter, the bar is "going to look into" Hafter's allegations against Masto, but he stopped short of characterizing it as an investigation.
"We are not going to open a file with regard to Ms. Masto at this time," Pattee said.
Hafter, who is a Republican candidate for attorney general seeking to challenge Masto, a Democrat, was adamant he did nothing wrong. He said the complaint is retaliation .
"It just shows the partisan tricks that the bar is playing," Hafter said. "It is absolutely ridiculous."
Hafter also said he was compelled to criticize Masto by rule 8.3 of the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers adopted by the Supreme Court of Nevada that states a "lawyer who knows that another lawyer has committed a violation ... shall inform the appropriate professional authority."
In a news release, Hafter said he did so by confirming that "a report of Ms. Masto's violation was made" to the bar.
Pattee wouldn't elaborate on specifics of the investigation but said they involved rules of conduct that prohibit knowingly making false statements.
Pattee said the state bar took up the investigation on its own, which it has the authority to do, after Hafter wrote the news release about Masto.
"Certain portions of that press release might be considered to be misleading," Pattee said. He did not say which portions.
Hafter's news release criticized Masto's conduct related to a lawsuit sought by Gov. Jim Gibbons. Gibbons, a Republican, asked Masto to file a lawsuit in federal court to block implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a health care overhaul bill signed into law March 23 by President Barack Obama.
The law was supported by Democrats in Congress but opposed by Republicans, many of whom argued that a provision mandating people buy private health insurance or pay a fine violates the U.S. Constitution.
Gibbons and Masto have been engaged in a feud on whether the attorney general had the authority to defy a request from the governor to file a lawsuit.
On March 30, Masto circulated a letter to Gibbons stating her belief that a lawsuit to block the health care law would be unlikely to succeed and that litigation would be a waste of taxpayer money. It was one of several items of publicly distributed communication between Gibbons and Masto.
Gibbons sought outside lawyers to take the case but also suggested -- through multiple staff members over several days -- that Masto might have violated rules of professional conduct related to attorney-client confidentiality.
The staff members said Gibbons did not waive any confidentiality privileges that would have authorized Masto to publicize her legal advice to him.
Masto responded through spokeswoman Edie Cartwright, saying she never gave legal advice publicly but simply responded to Gibbons' public demand for a lawsuit.
Hafter, while campaigning for Masto's job, jumped into the fray publicly April 7, accusing Masto of "blatant disregard for her professional duties" in a news release.
In a letter Tuesday addressed to David Clark, counsel for the State Bar of Nevada, Hafter defended the release as "the epitome of political speech."
The letter also criticized the bar for declining to take action against Masto, saying, "It is no wonder why the public has no confidence in the morality and ethics of lawyers."
The criticism for lack of action against Masto is inconsistent with a statement attributed to Hafter in an April 8 report on the subject by the Nevada News Bureau. The online news organization reported that Hafter, in a conference call with political bloggers, said a reliable source at the Nevada State Bar had confirmed that a formal ethics complaint regarding Masto's conduct had been filed.
Hafter said the statement to the news bureau was based on a conversation with Clark. He said it wasn't until Tuesday that he heard there wasn't a complaint, which is why he brought it up again in the letter.
"David Clark told me they were going to investigate this," Hafter said.
When asked about whether such a complaint existed, Pattee said the bar didn't take up the issue until after it received Hafter's Tuesday letter, which detailed his Masto allegations.
Cartwright said Masto would have no comment on the issue.
"We don't even know what the heck this is all about, so we will just have to wait," she said.
Hafter is a member of the bar's Southern Nevada Disciplinary Panel, so findings from the investigation will be presented to screening panels of the Northern Nevada Disciplinary Board, Pattee said. The panel can dismiss the complaint; issue a letter of caution, which is similar to a dismissal but with guidance for the future; issue a letter of reprimand; or order a formal hearing that could include harsher discipline, Pattee said.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.