- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - An attorney will not be sanctioned for unwittingly helping a wealthy farmer shield his assets from the estate of a neighboring farmer he killed, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court rejected a commission’s recommendation to publicly reprimand attorney Mason Ouderkirk, ruling that he did not violate any ethical rules in his representation of Rodney Heemstra.

Heemstra fatally shot his neighbor, Tommy Lyon, in 2003 after they argued over farmland and cattle-watering equipment on Heemstra’s farm in Milo, about 50 miles south of Des Moines.

Heemstra then stuffed Lyon’s body in a cistern and covered it with hay. A jury convicted Heemstra of first-degree murder, but the Iowa Supreme Court later ordered a new trial, where he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Heemstra, who argued he acted in self-defense, left prison in 2008 after serving four years.

After Heemstra was charged in 2003, Ouderkirk helped Heemstra and his wife complete a series of legal transactions in which they transferred ownership of millions of dollars of farmland into trusts that would benefit their sons and other relatives. Ouderkirk, who has a general practice in the nearby city of Indianola, had long represented the Heemstras in land transactions and was also defending Heemstra in the murder case.

Lyon’s estate sued Heemstra for wrongful death, and a jury awarded $8.9 million in damages in 2006. The estate, led by widow Ronda Lyon, then filed a separate lawsuit alleging the asset transfers were fraudulent and designed to thwart attempts to collect the judgment. A judge agreed in 2009, ruling that they were an “intentional, harsh and cruel effort to put truth in Rodney Heemstra’s arrogant claim that Ronda Lyon would never see a dime of his money.”

Ronda Lyon filed a complaint in 2009 alleging that Ouderkirk committed ethical violations when he helped draft documents to complete those transactions. An attorney disciplinary board agreed, filing a complaint against him seeking sanctions.

A disciplinary commission recommended a public reprimand last year. The commission concluded that Ouderkirk did not knowingly help the Heemstras commit fraud, saying the family members had misled him about their intentions and their claim that they had found a nonrelated, out-of-state buyer for the land. But the commission concluded that Ouderkirk should have recognized their “illegitimate motives” in drafting one document that specifically said the buyers could suspend payment if money was garnished by Lyon’s estate.

The high court rejected that conclusion Friday. The court said Ouderkirk was credible when he testified that he believed the transfer was a legitimate sale to a buyer, as the Heemstras told him, and nothing in that document indicated it was a sham.

“Fundamentally, it was the Heemstras’ misrepresentations that triggered the lengthy court proceedings to unwind their fraudulent transactions, not Ouderkirk’s conduct,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote.

Ouderkirk’s attorney, Michael Carroll, said the ruling ends a difficult chapter of his client’s professional life on a positive note. He said Ouderkirk had become “collateral damage” in the lengthy litigation between the two families.

“While he is extremely grateful for the result, this has been a brutal, brutal history that involves families and former neighbors and lots and lots of lawyers and judges,” he said. “Just to put it all behind him is a really good thing.”

Disciplinary board attorney Charles Harrington declined comment, saying he hasn’t read the ruling.

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