NUMBER 339 1936
Question, An attorney acted as counsel to a public administrative body of the State of New York. During the period that he was so engaged he discovered from the official minutes and records kept by that body, and generally in the course of his duties, that this body was violating and was permitting those under its supervision to violate the state laws.
These violations were grave, and he so advised this public administrative body, but it refused and still refuses to act on said violations. These violations have been disclosed to the appropriate public officials of highest jurisdiction. They have also refused to take any action. The attorney has severed his connection with this body.
1. May the attorney regard his services as counsel to the public administrative body as rendered to the People of the State of New York, as his actual client, and assume that his primary duty is to the latter?
2. Is it proper professional conduct for the attorney to make public the facts which constitute these alleged violations of law to invoke the pressure of public opinion to move action to end the same?
Answer. In the opinion of the Committee, the question as to whether or not the “actual client” of the attorney is the administrative body or the People of the State of New York is a question of law. If, as a matter of law, the relation of attorney and client did exist between the attorney and the administrative body, then the question whether or not the attorney is prohibited from disclosing the information described in this question is another question of law. Even if, as a matter of law, the relation between the two was not strictly that of attorney and client, the right to disclose, in the circumstances of this case, may be affected by questions of law. The Committee does not undertake to pass upon questions of law.
Assuming the facts stated in the question to be accurately set forth, and if the question were purely one of ethics, the answer to the second question should be in the affirmative.