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Teufel says no back-door metings were held

October 14, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - There are two sides to every story, Berkeley County Commissioner Steve Teufel told reporters on Thursday, and Teufel angrily said he wanted his side printed regarding an accusation that the county's attorney has been involved in a conflict of interest.

At last week's Berkeley County Commission meeting, Commissioner Howard Strauss and the county's attorney, Norwood Bentley, exchanged heated words over whether Bentley has been involved in a conflict of interest.

Strauss said the attorney might be guilty of a conflict because he has been providing advice to both the commission and to four elected officials who late last year filed a lawsuit against the commission seeking, in part, higher salaries for county employees.

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Bentley replied that he never has been and is not now involved in a conflict of interest. He said he did meet with the elected officials who filed the lawsuit - the county's sheriff, assessor, circuit clerk and prosecuting attorney - but only to try to reach a resolution.

He added that one commissioner at a time attended those meetings, which were held privately at his law firm. Only one commissioner attended at a time to prevent a quorum, which would have required the meeting to be advertised and open to the public.

Strauss said he never was made aware of such meetings and never attended one.

Teufel said little during last week's discussion, but on Thursday he frequently said there were never any "back-door meetings."

Strauss, he said, must have been confused because an objective from the beginning was to resolve the lawsuit outside of a courtroom.

Bentley was asked to mediate the meetings with the petitioners. Teufel said that during the meetings he listened to the petitioners' complaints in a fair and impartial manner.

"If Commissioner Strauss thinks that's a back-door meeting, he's got another thing coming," Teufel said.

Although Teufel used it, the term "back-door meeting" was not used by Strauss during last week's heated exchange, nor did Strauss use the phrase afterward during an interview with The Herald-Mail.

Commissioner Ron Collins did not attend last week's meeting and also was absent from Thursday's meeting.

Bentley, an attorney with the Martinsburg-based law office of Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love, said the contract between the law firm and the county requires he serve all county officials.

Bentley has been the lead counsel for the county since 1993. His firm is paid $92,000 a year to represent the county.

Strauss has said that Bentley should only represent the county commission and that if one of the elected officials who filed the lawsuit needs legal advice - even for an issue unrelated to the lawsuit - an outside attorney should be consulted.

While providing each elected official with his or her own lawyer is possible, it likely would lead to more disputes, Bentley said.

Reading from Rule 1.7 of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Strauss said that "a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if: (1) the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client. ..."

However, the attorney can represent both clients if, among other requirements, "each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing," Strauss read.

Strauss said he never gave consent for Bentley to meet with those who filed the lawsuit.

Responding briefly to Teufel's remarks Thursday, Strauss said he believes any meetings related to the lawsuit should have been held in public.

"It's a disappointment the public's best interest was not served," he said.

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