LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court has indefinitely suspended an Elkhorn defense attorney for disclosing confidential information about a former client to a prosecutor.
In a ruling issued Friday, the high court ordered Donna J. Tonderum to serve at least three years of the suspension before she can apply for reinstatement.
“Her breach of client confidentiality is an extremely serious offense,” the court stated in its ruling.
Tonderum, who has practiced law in Nebraska since 2003, did not contest the disciplinary proceedings that led to the suspension. But in an interview with The World-Herald Friday, she disputed key details of the accusation.
The court's ruling gave the following account of the violation:
On Aug. 13, 2012, a prosecutor charged Kevin H. Beltran of Columbus with first-degree sexual assault in Platte County. Tonderum initially represented Beltran, but several days later, his family hired a different attorney.
On Sept. 7, 2012, Tonderum called the prosecutor with names of witnesses and other information related to her former client's case.
“Tonderum stated that she 'hated' the other attorney, that she knew her former client was guilty, and that she wanted to make sure the prosecutor sent Tonderum's former client to prison,” according to the court's ruling.
Several days later, the prosecutor filed a grievance with the Counsel for Discipline, the state agency that investigates such complaints. The prosecutor also notified the defendant's new attorney and had the judge in the case appoint a special prosecutor to avoid a conflict of interest.
The sexual assault case has been on hold since December 2012 when Beltran, 18, failed to appear at a hearing. A bench warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Tonderum, who formerly worked as a Platte County public defender, sent a letter to the Counsel for Discipline admitting that she had a conversation about Beltran with the prosecutor. She called the conservation an “ethical violation” because she discussed a former client.
But she denied she said Beltran was guilty. She also denied saying she hated the other attorney.
“There was no way I would ever try to get my client, or my former client, sent to prison,” she told The World-Herald.
The Counsel for Discipline received the letter, but Tonderum did not otherwise defend herself during the formal disciplinary process, the high court noted.
“It wasn't worth it to me to fight this at all,” she said Friday. “I know I did something wrong, I know they would have probably suspended me anyway. Why fight it?”
Because Tonderum does not have a prior record of professional discipline, the high court opted against disbarment. But the court said disclosure of a client's confidential information undermines the broader public trust in the legal profession, so suspension was appropriate.
Tonderum, 45, said she closed her Elkhorn practice at the end of last year so she could stay at home with her five children. She does not plan to practice law again in Nebraska, she added.