S.C. DMV lawyer draws rebuke from state Supreme Court
COLUMBIA — The state Supreme Court has issued a public reprimand to the long-time general counsel for the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, saying the attorney violated his professional code.
According to the rebuke issued last month, Frank Valenta violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by having unauthorized, one-sided communications with judges, leaving some defendants in the dark.
Valenta received no further sanction, such as a fine or suspension, and the reprimand will not affect his status with the DMV, an agency spokeswoman said.
Valenta, known as “Val” around the hallways of the agency, violated the code in the process of refusing to comply with a series of magistrate court orders to return traffic tickets in reopened cases.
His sanction isn’t directly related to that refusal, the legality of which Supreme Court justices didn’t weigh in on in the reprimand.
Through DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks, Valenta declined a request for an interview.
Valenta has served as the agency’s general counsel for at least the last decade, Parks said.
She said Valenta’s refusal was based on his belief that the judges’ orders came too late and complying would have violated state law, which states “No motion for a new trial may be heard unless made within five days from the rendering of the judgment.”
According to the reprimand, Valenta’s concerns date back to at least 2007.
That’s when he began giving presentations at Magistrate’s Mandatory School about issues related to the return of tickets in reopened cases.
After consulting other attorneys, Valenta later began sending letters to the judges who he felt had asked the DMV to return tickets in violation of the law, the reprimand states.
In the letters, Valenta laid out his view of the time-limit law, and asked the judges to sign and return the letters if the judges still wanted the DMV to proceed with returning a ticket.
Parks said she didn’t know how many times judges responded to the letters.
The S.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel found that between 2009-10, Valenta refused to comply with 21 magistrate court orders to return tickets.
The state disciplinary office investigated Valenta’s actions as part of a multi-step process that preceded the Supreme Court justices signing off on the reprimand.
Instead of unilaterally sending the letters, another option for Valenta would have been to file a motion seeking to resolve his concerns through the judicial system, according to the rebuke.
Things began to come to a head in November 2009.
That’s when a judge who received one of Valenta’s letters again ordered him to return a ticket.
Instead of complying, Valenta filed a complaint against the judge with the S.C. Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The commission dismissed the complaint in March 2010, and Valenta stopped sending the letters, according to his reprimand.
Valenta’s professional violations, which he has admitted, occurred in cases in which traffic ticket defendants represented themselves.
Valenta would send copies of his letters to traffic case defendants he knew were being represented by attorneys because he thought some of them were not aware of the statutes and case law that he felt made judges’ requests to reopen cases illegal.
But according the reprimand, Valenta didn’t provide copies of his letters to defendants representing themselves.
The state Supreme Court found that lack of notification violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, which don’t allow a lawyer to have-one sided communication with judges without authorization.
At the time, Valenta didn’t think he was running afoul of the rules because the DMV was not a party to the cases.
Although the agency was not a party, it was the custodian of the tickets in the cases, according to the reprimand.
According to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, Valenta’s rebuke is permanent.
As of Sept. 1, Valenta’s salary is $88,690.
Public reprimands for attorneys and judges are somewhat rare in South Carolina.
Last fiscal year, the state issued 15 reprimands.
In recent years, the state has received an average of approximately 1,400 complaints a year against judges and lawyers, according to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.