December 6, 2021

Board recommends that Belleville, IL, attorney be suspended

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A state disciplinary case against Belleville attorney Margaret Lowery involves online statements made against St. Clair County Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson leading up to the 2018 general election.

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A recent report by an Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission hearing board is a mixed bag for Belleville attorney Margaret Lowery and St. Clair County Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson.

The three-person panel, functioning as a hearing board, is recommending that the Illinois Supreme Court suspend Lowery from practicing law for 60 days, determining that she lied to commission staff under oath during an investigation of alleged misconduct.

But board members declined to recommend discipline on the misconduct charges, which had accused Lowery of making “false or reckless statements” about Gleeson’s integrity and qualifications leading up to the election in 2018, when he was seeking retention as a judge.

“The Hearing Board found that the evidence did not clearly and convincingly establish that it was (Lowery) who made the statements on the website or the Facebook page,” the report stated.

This refers to a website called “Fire the Liar,” which GoDaddy web-hosting records show Lowery set up for a group opposed to Gleeson’s retention and which portrayed him as a white supremacist, including a doctored photo of a Ku Klux Klansman. She denies providing the content.

Lowery also allowed group members to use one of her Facebook pages to make similar disparaging comments about the judge, according to the report. She originally had created the page under the name Madeline Dinmont to post photos of her Dandie Dinmont terrier, Madeline.

The report details former St. Clair County Judge Ron Duebbert’s interactions with Lowery and his role in the Gleeson anti-retention campaign. Duebbert, who was removed from the bench last year for actions involving a different case, is facing possible Illinois Supreme Court discipline for alleged misconduct.

The hearing board reviewed testimony and evidence on the Lowery complaint in July and made its recommendation on Wednesday. Commission Administrator Jerome Larkin had argued for a two-year suspension.

Lowery’s Chicago-based attorney, Adrian Vuckovich, released the following statement:

“We (are) grateful that the Panel recognized that Ms. Lowery did nothing and said nothing to hurt Judge Gleeson or damage the integrity of the judiciary. She is an honorable lawyer and respectful of judges and everyone else who participates in the legal system.

“On the last charge where Ms. Lowery was found to have not been truthful to ARDC, we think the Panel got it wrong. Ms. Lowery was as honest as she can be and even tried to clarify the record so there was no misunderstanding. You also have to ask yourself how Ms. Lowery could have been untruthful to the ARDC about something she did not do, as the Panel found.”

Lawyer for 34 years

Lowery, 60, has been practicing law since 1987 with an emphasis on health care and corporate and guardianship matters. She formerly served 13 years as general counsel for Memorial Hospital in Belleville and its affiliates.

Lowery said Friday that Gleeson has reported her to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission five times and that none of the first four reports resulted in complaints being filed by its administrator.

“I think this whole thing is politically motivated,” Lowery said. “I believe that the ARDC process has been weaponized to go after political enemies. There can be no other explanation for what has occurred over the last three years. … I have a squeaky clean record, not even a parking ticket, no DUIs. I have no criminal history. I have no disciplinary history.”

Gleeson said Friday that he’s legally required to notify authorities when he believes an attorney is violating Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, but it’s up to the commission whether to file a complaint.

The case against Lowery was examined by a commission inquiry board, which is similar to a grand jury in the court system. In March 2020, it authorized Larkin, the administrator, to file a complaint, setting in motion a process that will eventually end with the Illinois Supreme Court.

Gleeson said he has no way of proving that Lowery posted the false statements about him on the website and Facebook page, but he pointed to the hearing board’s finding that she “set up the whole process.”

“It’s an unfortunate time,” Gleeson said. “With the advent of technology, you have people that use burner phones, fictitious Facebook accounts, aliases and surrogates to keep their fingerprints off what they have done.

“My concern going forward is for any and everybody who decides to get involved in their local government, in whatever form, whether it’s the school board or the township board, (people) now have the ability to muddy them up and create falsehoods that are just despicable and disseminate them freely with no one able to put an identity on them.”

White supremacy claims

The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission is tasked with helping the Illinois Supreme Court regulate the state’s legal profession.

The commission has about 100 volunteers who convene in panels of three (two attorneys and one non-attorney) to function as hearing boards, according to Steven Splitt, spokesman and chief legal counsel. In the Lowery case, the panel consisted of Janaki Nair, Stephen Pacey and Peggy Lewis LeCompte.

Either Lowery or the commission could appeal the hearing board’s recommendation, sending it to a review board. If no appeal is filed, the case will go directly to the Illinois Supreme Court for a decision.

“Only the Illinois Supreme Court can sanction attorneys for anything more than a reprimand,” Splitt said.

The commission’s complaint against Lowery included four counts. In regard to the first two, which involved statements on the “Fire the Liar” website and Madeline Dinmont Facebook page, the hearing board found that:

  • Lowery created the website through GoDaddy in the fall of 2018 as part of an anti-retention campaign against Gleeson and linked it to the Dinmont Facebook page.
  • One website post falsely claimed that another anti-retention campaign called “Justice for Kane” against Judge Zina Cruse, a Black judge from East St. Louis, was the “brainchild” of Gleeson and others who wanted to “run a female minority judge off the bench to preserve his white male privilege.”
  • Another website post falsely claimed that Gleeson supported a white supremacist group called the National Association for Majority Equality that was allegedly behind the Justice for Kane campaign.
  • A Facebook post falsely identified Gleeson as a white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan, stating “Gleeson is part of the St. Clair County Secret Order of the Hibernians. That’s why he uses the Irish clover. Wanna guess how many of its members are persons of color? None. Wanna see Gleeson in his ‘chief’ regalia?”
  • An attachment to that Facebook post showed a doctored photo of a Ku Klux Klansman wearing a white hood and robe with a clover and “Gleeson” name tag, standing next to a Confederate flag and noose, with the caption “Vote No Retention!”

The hearing board declined to recommend discipline for Lowery on the first two counts, noting that other members of the Gleeson anti-retention group had log-in credentials to access the website and Facebook page. But the report was still critical of her actions.

“(Lowery) allowed persons she had no basis to expect would exercise any restraint to have access to the website,” it stated. “We found that behavior extremely troubling and the posts themselves highly offensive.”

Violation on one count

The complaint’s third count accused Lowery of lying to commission staff under oath about her involvement with the “Fire the Liar” website, characterizing herself not as its creator but as someone who advised anti-retention group members on the process.

At the hearing, Lowery said she wasn’t trying to mislead, that she had found some questions confusing and she was answering in the context that the inappropriate posts were the investigation’s main focus, according to the report. This didn’t appear to sway board members.

“The questions … were posed in simple, ordinary language,” the report stated. (Lowery), an experienced lawyer, could have asked for clarification if the questions truly had been confusing or seemed to require a more technical response.”

The complaint’s fourth count related to comments Lowery made to a GoDaddy representative during a telephone call: “You know, in this part of the United States, politics is a blood sport. … I mean, I will tell you how evil it is. They’ve attempted to set up another judge of a different political party for murder if that tells you anything. … And this is the guy who orchestrated it.”

Lowery later described the comments as sarcasm related to one of Gleeson’s commission reports that involved her telling Duebbert she had overheard a conversation suggesting court personnel were involved in a conspiracy to falsely accuse him of murder.

The hearing board declined to recommend discipline on the fourth count, stating that Lowery’s comments to the GoDaddy representative were “made in a very limited context, unrelated to any court proceeding, and did not identify anyone by name.”

Board members are recommending that Lowery be suspended from practicing law for 60 days and successfully complete the ARDC’s Professionalism Seminar, based on code violations under Count 3. The report listed as mitigating factors her clean record, work with civic and professional organizations, pro bono legal services, college teaching and the strong testimony of character witnesses.

“(Lowery) testified that, in retrospect, she would not have gotten involved in the anti-retention campaign,” the report states. “When (she) first got involved, she did not know how other group members behaved or how they would use the website and Facebook page.”

In January, the Illinois Courts Commission removed Duebbert from the bench after concluding that he lied to investigators in 2016 about his contact with his former roommate, David Fields, who was later acquitted of murder in the shooting death of Carl Silas.

Gleeson already had limited Duebbert to administrative duties after learning of this connection to Fields.

The Justice for Kane anti-retention campaign was organized by Lori Friess in recognition of her 2-year-old grandson, Kane Friess-Wiley, who was killed in 2017. Friess was angry at Judge Cruse, who significantly reduced the bail of Gyasi Campbell, Kane’s mother’s former boyfriend. He had been charged with first-degree murder and was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

This story was originally published November 16, 2021 5:00 AM.

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Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 36 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.