In two unrelated cases, the Kentucky Bar Association is investigating alleged ethics violations by its own future president as well as another lawyer who was slated to become president of the Louisville Bar Association next year.
The two accused attorneys have responded quite differently.
Maria Fernandez, who was president-elect of the Louisville Bar Association, said in an interview that she resigned last week to avoid embarrassing the bar over a court's ruling that she charged an excessive fee in settling the estate of Claudia Sanders, the widow of the Kentucky Fried Chicken founder.
But Barbara Bonar, the KBA's president-elect, said she plans to assume the presidency of the 15,544-lawyer state organization in June, despite a judge's findings last year that she acted unethically in the priest-abuse litigation against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington. A judge referred those allegations to the KBA last May.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in January that Fernandez, 49, breached her duty to the estate of Sanders, who died in 1996, and may have tried to conceal her $175,000 fee, which it said could warrant her suspension from practice.
Fernandez has denied wrongdoing and asked the court to reconsider its ruling. But in an interview, she said that while she regretted having to give up the bar post, she "didn't want to embarrass the LBA."
In Bonar's case, Special Judge Robert McGinnis found last year that she committed "numerous ethical violations" by settling cases for individual sex-abuse clients while she was serving as co-counsel for a group of plaintiffs in a class-action suit against the diocese.
Lawyers in class actions are generally prohibited from settling cases for individual clients because it could reduce the pool of money available to class members.
Bonar, 54, said in an interview that she disagrees with McGinnis' findings and has appealed his ruling in a related civil case. "I haven't done anything wrong," she said.
The KBA's chief counsel, Linda Gosnell, confirmed on Tuesday that its inquiry tribunal has open investigations pending of Fernandez and Bonar.
The disclosure of those investigations is allowed under a new Supreme Court rule that permits the release of information about the status of disciplinary probes if they are prompted by a court's findings in a civil matter. Investigations previously were confidential until a lawyer was found guilty.
Lawyers who are found to violate ethics rules may be privately admonished, publicly reprimanded, suspended or disbarred.
Louisville lawyer Sheryl Snyder, a former KBA president, said that by declining the top job with the Louisville bar, "Ms. Fernandez has done a commendable thing. It will be interesting to see what happens with Ms. Bonar."
Bonar's lawyer, Bill Rambicure, did not return calls this week. But in an interview last year, he said of Bonar's future role as bar leader: "You don't want to reflect poorly on the profession. But when you believe you didn't do anything wrong, you don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction and leave."
The KBA's current president, Jane Winkler Dyche, declined to comment on whether she believes it is appropriate for a president to serve while facing pending bar charges.
The KBA's duties include hearing disciplinary charges against lawyers. Its board, including its president, hears appeals of sanctions recommended by hearing officers.
Membership in the KBA, an agency of the Kentucky Supreme Court, is mandatory. The LBA, Kentucky's oldest bar association, is a voluntary group to which about 80 percent of Louisville's lawyers belong.