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Attorney exits police-chief lawsuits

Plaintiffs’ representative faced judge’s sanctions over release of sealed materials by John Lynch | December 19, 2020 at 8:21 a.m.
Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,

Attorney Chris Burks has dropped out of all litigation -- three lawsuits -- involving Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey as part of an agreement to avoid sanctions from Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza.

Piazza let Burks withdraw from one lawsuit against Humphrey on Wednesday rather than have the judge remove Burks for contempt of court.

Piazza ruled that Burks had violated a court order in the lawyer's dealings with newspaper reporters by using materials that the sides had agreed would remain secret. Piazza said Burks had strayed beyond representing his client's interest in the litigation. Burks did not return a message seeking comment Friday.

Lawyers for the chief and the city had asked for sanctions because Burks had shown an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter and a Washington Post columnist text messages from Humphrey that derided the performance of some subordinate officers. The lawyers said the texts could not be made public since they involved job-performance critiques, information state law allows to be kept secret except in limited circumstances.

They wanted the judge to hold Burks in contempt and force him to answer questions under oath about what reporters he'd talked to and whether he had passed along anything else.

Burks denied any deliberate wrongdoing, telling Piazza that the journalists already possessed the text messages and that the ones he included in his emails were used only to clarify with the reporters the context of those messages.

Burks said Humphrey had similarly provided documents to The Washington Post and that his lawyers also had exposed materials that were supposed to be secret by referring to them in Humphrey's federal lawsuit against the chief's detractors in the department, which includes at least five of Burks' clients. City lawyers said they could not find any evidence the chief had done anything wrong.

The texts were published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in a Nov. 28 article, but Washington Post opinion writer Radley Balko has not addressed the contents of the materials beyond disclosing that Burks had given him an off-the-record interview about the litigation. Balko also disclosed that Humphrey had been a source but said the materials that the police chief had given him were provided before the court secrecy order was in place.

Burks told the judge he'd anticipated Piazza might disqualify him, so his client had already been making arrangements to possibly find new legal representation. The judge said he would not enter a formal contempt finding if Burks absented himself completely from the case, job retaliation claims against Humphrey by Assistant Chief Hayward Finks and two other officers, one of them Finks' brother.

The Finks lawsuit accuses Humphrey of retaliating against Finks for his testimony about the internal investigation of a fatal police shooting because Finks' version of events contradicted Humphrey's account, publicly embarrassing the chief. Finks contended that Humphrey went after his brother and friend on the force to get to him.

Burks withdrew Thursday from another suit based on similar claims, this one filed by Assistant Chief Alice Fulk, who is now the chief of the Capitol Police, and Lt. Christina Plummer.

There was a suit against Humphrey claiming retaliation based on the same claims by Capt. Marcus Paxton, but Burks had already moved to withdraw that suit before Piazza's ruling.

The third lawsuit Burks dropped after the judge's decision was a Freedom of Information lawsuit he had filed against Humphrey and the city seeking documents involving all payments made to Humphrey since he'd been hired and any emails between city directors and the city attorney's office about the chief.

Before withdrawing from the litigation, Burks had won one Freedom of Information lawsuit involving the chief. Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen sided with three officers and a department employee in November involving their personnel records they said Humphrey had wrongly withheld from them. Still pending before the judge is a request from Burks that the city be forced to pay the legal fees and expenses from the litigation, $5,167.

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