Public defender disciplined for ‘explicit’ jailhouse conversations

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A state public defender has received a public reprimand for misusing his status as an attorney to engage in intimate conversations with a jail inmate.

Records of the Iowa Supreme Court’s Attorney Disciplinary Board indicate the girlfriend of Des Moines attorney and public defender Tomas Rodriguez was arrested in October 2019 on drug and theft charges. At the time, the woman was allegedly pregnant with Rodriguez’s child.

According to the board, Rodriguez and the woman had “explicit” conversations while the woman was detained in the Polk County Jail, including discussions about the date on which their child was conceived. The board subsequently reviewed many recorded conversations between the two, as well as 800 text messages.

Although attorneys are entitled to have confidential conversations with their clients in jail, that level of privacy does not extend to attorneys who are having personal conversations with inmates they don’t represent.

The board says Rodriguez set up two accounts at the Polk County Jail to converse with the woman, including one that was designated as her attorney’s account. The board says that after the woman was arrested, Rodriguez entered an appearance in court on her behalf but withdrew the next day on the advice of his boss. However, he allegedly continued to converse with the woman as if he was her attorney, using his email log-in from the State Public Defender’s office.

Because his courtroom representation of the woman was so brief, the board concluded Rodriguez had not violated professional regulations pertaining to conflicts of interest.

However, the board did find that Rodriguez violated other rules of the profession, in part by frequently discussing other inmates with the woman, and by sharing confidential information with her about his other clients. In one conversation cited by the board, Rodriguez told his girlfriend, “You cannot say anything because that would get me in trouble.”

The board found that by sharing other information about inmates — at least one of whom was attempting to establish a texting relationship with him — Rodriguez could have put those inmates at risk of a jealous confrontation with his girlfriend.

The board also found that Rodriguez made false statements about the nature of his conversations with his girlfriend, and said that based on his extensive experience, he “simply should have known better.”

Rodriguez, who still works as a contracted attorney for the State Public Defender’s office, declined to comment on the matter Wednesday.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.