Alderman rebuts critics over potential conflicts
To his critics, Joe Kelly Levasseur blurs ethical lines. The alderman-lawyer represents criminal defendants and victims while pursuing a vendetta against police, according to police union President Steve Maloney. He cross-examines police officers, but votes on their department's budget. He openly criticizes police actions at City Hall and on a public-access television show he hosts.
But Levasseur said he's been careful to maintain ethical boundaries between his legal profession and his elected position as alderman. For example, he won't sue the city, and he said he only represents a handful of criminal clients arrested by Manchester police, and only after checking with the city's lawyer.
Of course, when it comes to representing someone, Levasseur goes beyond fine-tuned legal arguments about obscure points of law. Frequently, he uses the media as a tool to help his clients.
"A good attorney's always out there trying to get the stories out there for their clients, to make their clients look as good as they can," he said.
Some of the most vocal criticism against Levasseur has come from police, including Maloney. (Both are part of an investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office over whether Maloney intimidated Levasseur during a confrontation last January outside City Hall.)
Maloney said Levasseur has a bias against police and uses his political office, television show, the news media and his profession to promote that bias and generate clients.
Levasseur represents a Manchester woman who alleges her boyfriend, a Manchester police officer, assaulted her earlier this year. He represented a client arrested by police in a much-criticized shopping cart sting operation. (A judge ruled in favor of Levasseur's client.)
And before he was elected, he represented a man who successfully sued the Ordinance Violations Bureau head, Dale Robinson, a former deputy police chief, for shoving him at City Hall.
Manchester Police Chief David Mara declined comment for this article, noting the Attorney General's Office's investigation is underway.
Maloney said aldermen-lawyers shouldn't be allowed to represent people arrested by Manchester police.
"Our guys are in court being cross-examined by Levasseur. They're thinking, 'Who is this? Is this Alderman Levasseur cross-examining me? Is my career over now? Or is it attorney Levasseur?'" Maloney said. "It's almost like my boss going against me in court."
The union, working with its lawyer, plans to file challenges against what it believes are Levasseur's conflicts of interest, he said.
The New Hampshire Attorney Discipline Office, which investigates possible conflicts of interest involving lawyers, has no public complaints on file against Levasseur, according to its general counsel, Janet DeVito.
Ethics rules for lawyer-politicians say they can't represent clients before the elected body they sit on. But the rules don't prohibit elected municipal officials from representing defendants in criminal cases involving local police.
Under an arrangement worked out by City Solicitor Tom Clark, if Levasseur represents a person arrested by Manchester police, the case will be prosecuted by a Hillsborough County attorney, not Clark's office. Clark's office prosecutes most misdemeanors in Manchester.
Ethics rules do not prohibit a lawyer from using public access television, or even elected office, to drum up business, said Kimberly Kirkland, a professor who teaches a legal ethics course at University of New Hampshire School of Law.
She likened it to a corporate lawyer who joins a chamber of commerce and gives a workshop on employment or tax law.
"Lawyers do this all the time. His (Levasseur's) prospective clientele is people watching television," Kirkland said.
Kirkland said criminal defense lawyers have different strategies. Some pursue friendly relations with prosecutors, hoping for good plea bargains. Others are aggressive, hoping to discourage police from overcharging or pursuing questionable charges.
"No one can say which strategy is better," she said.
As an alderman, Levasseur must also follow the city's Code of Conduct, which governs elected officials.
The code prohibits an alderman from deciding any issue where he would have a direct personal or financial interest. Nor can an alderman have an undisclosed "financial or direct personal interest in any contract with the city."
To Maloney, the code prohibits Levasseur from voting on issues dealing with Manchester police.
"It's clear to everyone he has an issue with the Manchester Police Department. To him, it's personal," Maloney said.
Levasseur said he has a lot of respect for individual police officers, but he thinks Mara is in over his head and should resign. Levasseur said Maloney doesn't like him because he voted against the union contract for police last year.
Both Maloney and Levasseur have accused each other of trying to intimidate the other. Maloney said Levasseur intimidates police in court and on his television show; Levasseur said Maloney has intimidated his client by naming her - a girlfriend allegedly assaulted by her policeman-boyfriend - in a blog post.
Levasseur said his legal advocacy and the cases he takes will naturally upset people.
"I take cases that I believe need to be heard and need to be brought to people's attention that not everyone is treated equally under the law," he said.
But Maloney said something's wrong with the picture. Levasseur has called him a "dupe" and an "idiot," Maloney said. He has even seen Levasseur mock his appearance on his television show.
"This is an alderman; it's crazy," he said. But he agreed that the issue may not be resolved until early November. "Ultimately," he said, "it's going to be up to the voters."
Levasseur, who is also register of probate for Hillsborough County, is seeking reelection to his at-large alderman seat. However, because there aren't enough challengers seeking the office, the seat will not be among those on the ballot in Tuesday's primary election.