An Iowa judge has sanctioned a high-profile Illinois attorney for contempt, citing the lawyer's alleged "lack of candor” with the court. (Photo by Getty Images)
An Iowa judge has taken the unusual step of sanctioning and limiting the practice of a high-profile Illinois attorney for his alleged “lack of candor” with the court.
U.S. District Court Judge C.J. Williams, who works out of the Cedar Rapids courthouse in the Northern District of Iowa, has filed a written opinion and order sanctioning attorney Jeffrey B. Steinback of Roscoe, Ill., for contempt of court. The order prohibits Steinback from ever appearing before Williams again except with the permission of the district’s chief judge.
Over the years, Steinback has provided legal services for a number of high-profile clients, including singer R. Kelly, who has faced various state and federal charges related to child pornography, racketeering and sexual abuse; a key witness in the corruption investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich; and a high-ranking Chicago police officer who ran a jewelry-theft ring.
Other Steinback clients have included media mogul Conrad Black, who was convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice, and accused mob boss Michael “The Large Guy” Sarno.
When asked about the sanctions and the finding of contempt, Steinback told the Iowa Capital Dispatch on Wednesday, “I have profound respect for Judge Williams and the power of the district court, generally, and I advised the court during the hearing that I would accept whatever the judge felt was appropriate and I am standing by that statement.”
The sanctions imposed by Judge Williams are based on Steinback’s conduct in the defense of Romel Murphy, who in 2020 was criminally charged in Iowa with wire fraud and identity theft in connection with various concert promotions.
A trial in the case was initially scheduled for April 2020, but Steinback filed a motion for a continuance, citing serious concerns with his family’s health. Similar motions were filed in May 2020, citing COVID-19 restrictions that prevented him from meeting with Murphy; in July 2020, citing ongoing issues with COVID-19 restrictions; and in September 2020, citing additional family health issues. All of the motions were granted by the court, pushing the scheduled trial to January 2021.
Three weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin that month, Steinback filed a fifth motion for a continuance, citing COVID-19 restrictions and the recent birth of a grandson. That motion was denied by the court. The next day, Steinback filed a motion with the court indicating Murphy would plead guilty.
Judge: ‘I’m highly skeptical’ of lawyer’s claims
Eight days before the scheduled sentencing in September 2021, Steinback filed a motion asking for a continuance, The court agreed, but the day before the rescheduled sentencing, Steinback’s wife and legal assistant emailed the court, stating Steinback was “on his way to the emergency room due to violent back spasms and nerve pain” and wouldn’t be able to attend the hearing.
An emergency motion to continue the sentencing hearing was then filed with the court over Steinback’s signature. The motion claimed Steinback “was taken to the emergency room and was treated there” and was advised not to travel. The court granted the motion and continued the sentencing to Oct. 6, 2021.
I find it absolutely unbelievable that you could not produce documents to demonstrate those medical treatments.
– U.S. District Court Judge C.J. Williams
On Oct. 5, 2021, Steinback’s wife called the judge’s assistant and reported that Steinback had met with a client who seemed to be positive for COVID-19, and so Steinback needed to self-quarantine. She asked that the sentencing be continued.
Steinback was informed that unless he tested positive for COVID-19, the hearing would proceed as planned. Within hours, Steinback filed another emergency motion seeking to continue the matter, claiming he had been ordered by his physician to self-quarantine.
When Steinback failed to appear in court that day, Judge Williams rescheduled the matter for Oct. 20, 2021. The judge then issued an order requiring Steinback to show cause as to why he shouldn’t be held in contempt. He also ordered Steinback to produce copies of correspondence with Murphy about the continuances; medical records pertaining to the reported back spasms; and medical records pertaining to Steinback’s testing for COVID-19.
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At a subsequent hearing on the contempt matter, Steinback provided typed documents that claimed to be transcripts of communications with Murphy — but they were not original documents or actual text messages. No billing records were provided, and the only recent medical record turned over was a statement from a physician that read, “Patient reports missing a work appointment on 9/24/21 due to back spasms.”
At the hearing, Judge Williams told Steinback, “I’m highly skeptical that you went to the emergency room and had any instructions from any doctor not to appear — or not to travel. I find it absolutely unbelievable that you could not produce documents to demonstrate those medical treatments that you allege and that you told me in a court filing happened on those dates. I don’t have any idea how you could not produce those documents when I gave you plenty of time to do so – if, in fact, they occurred.”
Steinback: ‘I will not sit still and be called a liar’
The judge agreed to give Steinback 30 days to prove that he “actually went into an emergency room” and to provide the requested documents. Steinback then claimed that it was an urgent care facility he went to rather than an emergency room and told the judge the facility wasn’t providing him with any documents related to the visit.
At the hearing, Steinback offered to let the judge physically examine his back, his hip and other areas of his body. “Your honor has raised skepticisms, which essentially attack the very core of who I am and what I’ve been as a professional for 47 years,” Steinback said, according to a court transcript of the hearing. “The only thing that a lawyer has is his word. That’s it. That’s my stock in trade.”
After 30 days passed and Steinback still hadn’t produced the records, a second hearing on the contempt matter was scheduled for December 2021. The day before the planned hearing, Steinback sought another continuance, citing his brother’s medical issues. The motion was granted, and the hearing was rescheduled for later that month.
One day before the rescheduled hearing, Steinback sought another continuance, this time citing his own history of health problems. At that time, Steinback also told the court the urgent care clinic would not give him the name of the person who had evaluated him. The court agreed to continue the matter until Jan. 10, 2022.
At the hearing, Steinback said under oath that while he had been asleep and heavily medicated for his back spasms, his wife wrote a motion seeking a continuance in the case and filed it with the court without his knowledge.
“I did not want to get into that with your honor because I’d rather die,” he told the judge, according to court records. “I’d rather your honor throw me into jail than have anybody think anything untoward about my wife … Your honor can do whatever your honor feels is appropriate. And if you think I’m lying, then do whatever it is that you want. But I will not sit still and be called a liar.”
The judge asked Steinback whether he had ever “stepped foot inside that urgent care facility.” Steinback said he had, but no one at the clinic took his name or sought any identifying information from him.
The hearing ended and was scheduled to resume on May 20, but on May 18, Steinback emailed a three-page letter to Williams in which he sought a continuance and asked for “forgiveness for the short-sighted, wrong-headed and, reflecting back, at times misleading way in which I have conducted myself before this court.”
The motion was denied, and at the conclusion of the May 20 hearing, the judge found Steinback in civil contempt of court for failing to comply with court orders, for a lack of candor with the court, and for misleading the court.
Judge: ‘That was a lie from the beginning’
In the written order of contempt filed this week, Williams stated that Steinback’s claim of visiting an urgent care facility was untrue. The judge wrote that “the first step the facility would have taken would have been to get identification from Steinback and enter him into their system, if for no other reason than to collect insurance.”
Judge Williams also noted that Steinback had claimed to have screenshots of text messages but never produced them for the court as ordered. “The conclusion the court reaches is that there was information in the text messages that was not favorable to Steinback and he would rather incur the court’s wrath for not producing them than to produce them and let the court know what they contain,” the judge stated in his order.
“He could not ultimately produce medical records showing he was treated for back spasms on September 24, 2021, because that was a lie from the beginning,” Williams wrote in his order. The judge added that he doubted the truth of Steinback’s claim that he never approved court filings that “contained the lie” that he had been treated in an emergency room for back spasms.
“The court suspects that Steinback fully knew about, and approved, the filing of the motion,” Williams stated.
Williams found that Steinback’s conduct “substantially interfered with the court’s schedule. The Northern District of Iowa is a small district with one of the heaviest per-judge caseloads in the country … When Steinback repeatedly filed motions to continue hearings at the last minute for what the court now finds to be under frivolous or false pretenses, it disrupts the court’s schedule.
Williams also called Steinback’s “utter disregard” for the welfare of his client, Murphy, “reprehensible.”
William issued Steinback a public reprimand in the form of the contempt finding; ordered that Steinback “must not again practice law before this court” without the express written permission from the chief judge for the Northern District of Iowa; and ordered Steinback to pay a fine of $5,000.
Williams also ordered that a copy of his opinion be sent to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of Illinois.
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