By SAM METZ AP / Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — On billboards throughout northern Nevada, Republican gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert can be seen with clenched fists and a promise: “Joey Gilbert Law, Fighting for Nevada.”
Now, Gilbert is fighting efforts to reprimand him by the State Bar of Nevada. Gilbert has yet to be disciplined, but a screening panel that reviewed his work sent him a draft letter of reprimand in August alleging he harmed a client and violated the bar’s rules of professional conduct.
“Your misconduct actually injured your client, albeit not substantially because he had no formal deadline for filing the petition. Your misconduct actually injured the integrity of the profession as well,” Richard Williamson, the chair of a disciplinary panel convened by the bar, wrote in the Aug. 27 letter to Gilbert.
Gilbert is an attorney and former professional boxer who in the last year has become one of Nevada’s most prominent voices calling into question the 2020 election result and decrying coronavirus vaccines. He was present in Washington, D.C., during the Jan. 6 insurrection but has said he did not enter the Capitol. Gilbert is running in a crowded primary field of Republicans hoping to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2022.
The letter obtained by The Associated Press was confirmed as authentic by the State Bar of Nevada.
The Nevada Bar appoints three-member panels to evaluate grievances lodged by clients claiming harm against its attorneys. After deliberation, panels can impose sanctions, reprimand an attorney or dismiss the allegations. If the panel chooses sanctions or a reprimand, it must provide the attorney an opportunity to review the allegations and file an objection within 14 days.
Gilbert filed a motion to dismiss the letter, which the disciplinary panel denied on Dec. 1, according to filings provided by his attorney, Dominic Gentile.
Gentile said Gilbert denied all the allegations in the letter and planned to continue to fight the bar over its process and conclusions. He said the draft letter was not a public record and the State Bar should not have commented on it at this stage.
“There is no final determination as to the validity of any grievance against Mr. Gilbert. A lawyer is entitled to a live hearing at which witnesses must be called to testify and be subject to cross-examination,” he said.
Bar counsel Daniel Hooge said the letter was unofficial and Gilbert would not be formally disciplined until the panel holds another hearing.
“While the Supreme Court of Nevada retains ultimate authority to regulate the legal profession, the Office of the Bar Counsel serves as the Court’s arm to investigate and prosecute claims that a lawyer has violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. Our primary goal is to protect the public,” Hooge said.
The panel’s consideration comes as Gilbert campaigns throughout Nevada ahead of the Republican gubernatorial primary next June and files headline-grabbing lawsuits challenging vaccine and mask mandates.
To voters, Gilbert cites his legal work as evidence that he’s the best choice to be Nevada’s next governor and committed to fighting for the state.
In stump speeches he’s made across the state and shared on his Facebook page, he says the legal work he’s done throughout the pandemic prove his willingness to be “in the trenches, fighting,” referencing cases such as Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain’s ongoing challenges to Nevada’s coronavirus-related capacity cap on religious gatherings.
Gilbert is part of the legal team representing that church in Las Vegas, which along with another in rural Nevada, won an appeal challenging a statewide capacity cap on religious gatherings. The 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled in favor of the church after the governor had rolled back the restrictions in question.
The State Bar letter claims Gilbert’s firm allowed employees who weren’t licensed attorneys to handle a case without supervision — a violation of professional standards and bar requirements. It alleges that a law student, who was supposed to be under Gilbert’s supervision per bar rules, falsely implied to a client that a petition had been filed in court when it had not.
Though Gilbert’s client had paid a $3,500 retainer four months prior, the firm later dropped him as a client. The draft letter also reprimands Gilbert for violating a “diligence” rule by not promptly alerting the client that he did not want to represent him.
Gentile said Gilbert denied the allegations.
After speaking to employees mentioned in the letter, Gentile said he believes the disciplinary panel hadn’t sufficiently investigated the incident. He said he was confident the reprimand would be dismissed.
“What Joey Gilbert is doing here is he’s standing up for his integrity,” Gentile said.
The State Bar of Nevada said it has about 9,000 active members and prosecutes roughly 200 to 300 grievances annually. In 2021, it issued 24 reprimands, nine stayed suspensions and 15 actual suspensions. One attorney was disbarred.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed reporting from Reno. Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.