Posted: April 16, 2004
By Celia Cohen
A festering ethics complaint, which loomed between Supreme Court Justice Myron T. Steele and a possible nomination for chief justice, has been dismissed after an investigation cleared him of accusations of impropriety and favoritism.
The allegations were called "totally baseless and unfair" in the dismissal, which was issued Thursday by Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey and made public Friday after Steele waived confidentiality in a disciplinary matter that otherwise would be required to be secret.
The entire proceeding -- from investigation to conclusion -- lasted an expedited eight days, underscoring the intensity arising from its timing in the midst of the selection of a new chief justice to replace Veasey, who has been holding over in the post since his 12-year term ended April 7.
With the matter closed, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner is expected to announce her nominee shortly from a list of three candidates said to include Steele and fellow Justices Randy J. Holland and Carolyn Berger.
"She expects to make a decision soon," Gregory B. Patterson, the governor's communications director, said Friday. "She's still mulling things over and will factor in any available information."
Steele was regarded as the front-runner and appeared unstoppable until an incendiary appeal on a rent-cap case, which went against hundreds of Sussex County mobile home tenants, blew into accusations of ethical lapses.
Tenants charged that Steele had maneuvered himself onto the three-justice panel hearing the appeal because of his friendship with John W. Paradee, a Dover lawyer who represented the mobile home park corporation seeking to remove the rent caps.
The tenants also were outraged because they learned they had lost the case from a corporation manager, and not from their own lawyer, and they blamed the leak on a conversation between Steele and Paradee.
Nor are they satisfied now. John G. Walsh, a Rehoboth Beach tenant who made the complaint, called the investigation a "whitewash" and warned, "If the governor makes this nomination, frankly, we're going to have to see what we can do."
The investigation was conducted by Charles S. Crompton Jr., a Wilmington lawyer and former president of the Delaware State Bar Association.
Crompton found Steele had nothing to do with being assigned to the case. "He first learned that he would be a member of the panel to hear the appeal only when the briefs were delivered to his office 'a few days' before the argument," Crompton wrote.
Crompton also determined there was nothing to support an accusation that Steele was biased in favor of Paradee because both practiced at the law firm of Prickett Jones & Elliott. Steele left to become a Superior Court judge in 1988, while Paradee did not become a lawyer there until he was admitted to the bar in 1989, Crompton said.
The crux of the complaint against Steele turned on his ill-timed conversation with Paradee.
According to Crompton's findings, the three-justice panel heard the case on March 16 and decided it immediately afterwards. Steele was assigned to draft and send out the decision, and when it was ready, he gave it to his secretary to fax to the lawyers.
Afterwards, Steele and Paradee talked by telephone to discuss an annual contribution they make to the University of Virginia, where they both went to school. Although it was unclear who called whom, Paradee believes Steele was the one who telephoned.
The two also discussed the outcome of the case, which Steele believed already had been transmitted. What he did not know was that his secretary had misunderstood his directions and left the faxing for the next day.
When Steele learned of the problem, he immediately advised both attorneys about it and apologized.
"No probable cause for a finding of misconduct exists on this issue," Crompton wrote.
Steele was out of town Friday. Former Chancellor Grover C. Brown, who represented him in the disciplinary proceedings, did not return telephone calls for comment, but he did submit a statement that was included in the documents made public Friday.
"Justice Steele has suffered enough already for a mistake anyone could have made under similar circumstances. He has been publicly and unfairly embarrassed in the news media and has been distracted unnecessarily in the performance of his duties," Brown wrote.