Files containing private information of clients of one of Gainesville's best-known attorneys showed up in the strangest of places last week — a newspaper recycling bin at The Times.
The files came from the law office of Ashley Bell, a member of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, who said he wasn't involved in the documents' disposal. His firm has blamed the incident on a college intern.
The files left at The Times last week included phone and Social Security numbers of former clients and information regarding the physical and sexual abuse of juveniles — the release of which is generally prohibited under state law.
Most of the case files left in the bin stem from Bell's previous work as an indigent defense attorney in Gwinnett, Dawson and Hall counties.
Many include information on juveniles and reports and evaluations conducted by the Department of Family and Children Services and Court Appointed Special Advocates.
CASA, which works as an advocate for children in court cases involving DFCS, makes the confidentiality of its clients a high priority, said Lisa McCarthy, an advocacy coordinator for the local CASA office.
"We have all kinds of very important information that we don't want anyone to get a hold of, especially with children," said McCarthy. "We're just very protective of our kids."
No effort was made to conceal the documents left at The Times last week, other than to leave them in a covered Dumpster. A majority of the documents remained in their original file folders.
When asked about the disposed documents Thursday, Bell acted surprised. The commissioner said he had not been in his law office much last week due to illness, and was not aware of any purge of documents at his office "out of the ordinary."
"That's something that normally occurs according to plan, and I guess this time it didn't," he said.
Georgia Bar Association rules aren't clear as to how long attorneys should hold on to files associated with closed client cases and how they should dispose of them.
Bill Smith, ethics counsel for the Georgia Bar, said there is one hard and fast rule, however.
"Attorneys have an obligation to keep the confidences and secrets of their clients, and they should take that into consideration when they're destroying old files," Smith said.
The files from Bell's office came to the attention of The Times' editorial staff following an incident Monday. Dan Montgomery, the paper's new circulation manager, said he encountered a woman as he was walking up to the building that afternoon.
The woman backed a small white car up to Dumpsters used to recycle newspapers.
"She got out of the car and she asked me if she could dump some papers in there, and I said ‘well, this is for the newspaper business here and these are for newsprint,'" recalled Montgomery. "She said ‘... the courthouse sent me down here to dump some papers ... they're some old records. The courthouse told me to come back here; this is what we do with them.'"
Hall County Clerk of Courts Charles Baker said such an instruction did not come from his office. The clerks office deals with the filing of all local court records in state and county superior court.
"We don't give advice like that," Baker said.
During the encounter Monday, Montgomery said he told the woman that the bins weren't a safe place to dump old court records. She responded that the cases related to the files were closed.
Montgomery, a fairly new employee at The Times, said he relented, assuming the woman knew more than him about any disposal agreements. He said he watched as the woman emptied the files from her back seat and then from the trunk of her car.
Montgomery said he thought the woman might have worked at the Hall County Courthouse.
"She made it sound like it was the routine, you know? The courthouse sends me down here to do this," said Montgomery. "She did say ‘this is where they told me to come, to the Dumpsters behind the newspaper.' I got the impression it was a regular thing."
Once the documents were determined to be wrongly dumped in the bins, they were removed, reviewed by Times' editorial staff and locked in a file drawer.
Included in the files recovered are one former client's W-2 form; another former client's car title; numerous Social Security numbers; a stack of copies of various personal checks written to one of Bell's clients; criminal histories; personal medical records; and documentation of investigations into the abuse and neglect of juveniles, many of whom still are under age 18.
A number of documents were as recent as 2009 and included pages that were marked as "privileged" and "confidential."
One April 2009 case file from Gwinnett County included a mental health screening summary of one of Bell's former juvenile clients. Another file from a 2008 simple battery case included the names, phone numbers and addresses of victims and witnesses.
Multiple files included privileged medical documentation of sexual abuse, drug use and physical abuse of juveniles by their parents.
One file involved a yearslong investigation into allegations of sexual abuse of four children, all under the age of 9 in 2004. Inside the file was a handwritten accusation signed by a relative, a log kept by a foster parent of the children's sexualized behavior and a detailed psychotherapist's report.
Another file involved a 2007 investigation of a woman who allegedly binged on alcohol during her pregnancy, possibly resulting in her infant's severely deformed leg. The file included the mother's medical history, including documentation of a sexually transmitted infection and notes on a previous loss of custody of the woman's two older children following allegations of sexual abuse.
Smith, ethics counsel for the Georgia Bar, declined to comment about the specific incident, citing his lack of knowledge of all the facts.
While the bar association investigates whether attorneys have disposed of their files appropriately, it normally only does so if a possible violation is called to the bar's attention.
Punishment for such a violation can range from a letter of admonition to disbarment, "depending on how egregious it was," Smith said.
Because Bell no longer handles indigent defense cases, and "they have no opportunity of opening back up," Bell said he understood why those case files might have been discarded.
Now the bulk of Bell's work includes civil suits; he also practices public finance law. He no longer has offices in Gwinnett County, where a number of the case files dumped at The Times originated, and much of his public finance work is done in Alabama.
Still, he called Monday's incident "bizarre" and "baffling."
"Usually, (old files are) supposed to be shredded," Bell said. "... That's what I've been doing since I've been practicing law for about six years."
Thursday morning, Bell said he would handle the situation internally. Later that day, Quinton Washington, a managing partner of Bell's law firm, issued a statement that the files were dumped by one of the office's interns who failed to follow the office's "normal shredding procedure."
"This action did not live up to our high standards," Washington's statement read. "... We have addressed the issue and we are confident the matter will not happen again."
In a later email, Bell wrote that the intern had orders to shred and recycle old case files Monday.
The law office had been in a process of disposing of closed case files for a few days, Bell wrote.
"Although a laborious task, shredding is a necessary part of disposing (of) files," he wrote.
"That step was unfortunately skipped and a quick alternative to finishing the job was sought by this individual. The reasoning behind those decisions (is) inadequate and unacceptable no matter what the circumstances may be."
When CASA discards old files involving local children, the organization pays for an on-site document destruction service, McCarthy said. The organization does not discuss with attorneys they work with what should be done with files related with a CASA or DFCS case, McCarthy said.
"Their case files are just as important as ours, so I'm thinking that we just assume that they will shred them as well," McCarthy said.
Complying with the Georgia Bar's rule to protect clients' secrets doesn't necessarily mean all old files must be shredded, Smith said.
Court administrators who spoke with The Times last week said they don't make recommendations for how long attorneys should keep files or how they should dispose of them.
"They're all attorneys and they know what's confidential and what isn't," said Jesse Lawler, court administrator of the Gwinnett County Juvenile Court, where Bell argued cases referenced in files dumped at The Times.
"We don't have a formal recommendation (for how to dispose of client files). The attorneys, they go to school and they get a license to practice law and they should understand that those things are confidential. How they dispose of them is up to the individual attorneys, but they do know that those things are confidential."
Hall County Public Defender Brad Morris keeps everything from his personal practice. In his county office, files are only destroyed once they have been saved to a computer disk; for disposal, the county uses an on-site document destruction service, he said.
Rules of the state Bar Association do require Bell and other attorneys who are either partners in law firms or who have direct supervisory authority to "make reasonable efforts" to ensure that a nonlawyer employee acts in a manner that is compatible with his professional obligations to the Bar and his clients.
If an employee disobeys the attorney's instructions, as Bell's office has claimed, it is unlikely the Georgia Bar will pursue penalties.
But the Bar's decision not to pursue penalties does not exempt Bell from any civil liability he may have faced if his clients' personal information had landed in the wrong hands.
"This is something that's never happened the whole time I've been practicing," Bell said. "... You can't watch your employees every day. ... You hope you can go on autopilot, but I guess sometimes the plane crashes."