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Attorney faces suspension for giving inmate toothbrush, pepper

A Madison attorney faces a 60-day suspension of his law license after he allegedly gave an inmate supplies to make pepper spray and makeshift knives, then lied about it to law enforcement.

Steven Cohen graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1996. His license is in good standing, according to the State Bar and Office of Lawyer regulation websites. Cohen has not been previously professionally disciplined.

The OLR complaint filed Wednesday stems from a number of Cohen’s convictions in Columbia County Circuit Court and misconduct involving a client.

In February 2014, the Vilas County District Attorney filed a complaint charging Cohen with felony delivery of contraband to an inmate and one misdemeanor count of resisting or obstructing an officer.

According to court documents, Cohen met with client Ralph Santori, an inmate at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, and slipped him toothbrushes and a container of McCormick crushed red pepper.

When the two were moved to a different room, Santori threw a bag, which Cohen alleged was his lunch, into a garbage can. Prison officials searched the bag, found an empty toothbrush box, then searched Santori and his belongings. They found two toothbrushes and the container of pepper that Cohen had allegedly sneaked into Santori’s legal folder.

The toothbrushes, which were heavier than those available at the prison to inmates, could be fashioned into shanks, and the pepper could be used to make pepper spray, according to prison officials. When they asked Cohen about the pepper and toothbrushes, he denied knowing anything about them.

In November 2014, the court found Cohen guilty of one felony count of delivery of illegal articles to an inmate, one count of resisting or obstructing an officers and disorderly conduct. Cohen pleaded no contest to the two misdemeanor counts and entered deferred prosecution on the felony charge.

The OLR complaint also alleges three counts of misconduct involving a client who had been charged with an OWI and hired Cohen in 2013 to represent him. According to the OLR, Cohen did not explain his fees to the client in writing, as required by Supreme Court rules when fees exceed $1,000.

The OLR also alleges that after the client paid advance fees to Cohen, Cohen did not respond to any of the client’s emails or phone calls. Moreover, the OLR alleges that Cohen lied about responding to the client during the OLR’s investigation because he could not show any documentation of calls or emails to the client.

The OLR is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to suspend Cohen’s license for 60 days for four counts of misconduct.

Cohen, reached Friday, did not comment on the OLR’s complaint.

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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