Former Hancock County coroner Tamara Vangundy paid for negligent legal advice on her plea deal in a drunken-driving and official-misconduct case that ended her career as an elected official, she alleges in a legal malpractice claim filed against former Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi.
The complaint also blames Vangundy’s drunken-driving arrest on “sleep driving” induced after she took her first-ever dose of Ambien.
The lawsuit, filed May 16 in Marion Superior Court, claims Vangundy paid Brizzi a flat fee of $10,000 for advice regarding election law and the implications for a public official pleading guilty to a felony.
“Carl Brizzi’s advice that Ms. Vangundy should plead guilty to official misconduct, a Class D felony, but receive misdemeanor sentencing, because she would be able to continue to serve as Hancock County coroner was flat wrong and caused Ms. Vangundy to forever lose her position as Hancock County coroner,” according to the complaint.
“After the plea agreement was accepted by the court, the Hancock County prosecutor emailed Carl Brizzi and threatened to prosecute Ms. Vangundy for impersonation of a public servant if she took a single coroner call from that day forward,” according to the complaint.
Vangundy is represented by Cohen & Malad LLP.
Brizzi said Thursday he had not seen the complaint.
“Attorney-client privilege is probably still in place,” he said. “I’d better wait and let it all sort of come out in due course. … Situations like this, discretion is probably the best route.”
In the complaint, Vangundy claims she was distraught after assisting in the autopsy of a teenage girl who was near the same age as her daughter. She shared wine with a friend afterward and later took the sleep aid Ambien “after her emotionally draining day.”
Later that night, May 2, 2012, the coroner’s office was notified of a suspected suicide of a New Palestine teenager. Vangundy’s arrest for drunken driving when she arrived at the scene at about 13:30 a.m. in an intoxicated state made headlines. A day later she was charged with a misdemeanor for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, a misdemeanor operating a vehicle with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15, and the felony official misconduct count.
“At some time after instructing the deputy coroner to handle the death call, Ms. Vangundy, while inside her home, blacked out or had a ‘sleep driving’ and amnesic incident,” the complaint says. “She left the residence leaving the door to her home open, got in her Jeep, and went to the scene of the death.”
A few days later, she won the Republican primary and had been slated to run unopposed for re-election last November.
Vangundy was advised to plead guilty to the charges, which she did Aug. 22, 2012. “When the judge read the plea of guilty to the felony charge, Ms. Vangundy specifically looked at Carl Brizzi and asked again, ‘Am I supposed to say 'yes' to that?’” the complaint alleges.
“Brizzi advised Ms. Vangundy to say 'yes' … and again assured her that her position as Hancock County coroner was fine,” according to the complaint. She was sentenced to a one-year probation.
Brizzi later told reporters that Vangundy wasn’t a convicted felon, but reversed himself that evening, telling the Greenfield Daily Reporter that Vangundy’s banishment from office was something attorneys on both sides hadn’t realized. “So shame on us for not considering it. There’s no excuse for it. It was a mistake, for sure,” he said.
The complaint alleges that when Vangundy asked for a refund over the bad advice, "Brizzi laughed and refused.” Vangundy claims her damages include the $10,000 fee, interest on a loan taken to pay the fee, lost salary and benefits, emotional pain and suffering, attorney fees and other relief.
“It is hard to believe that Mr. Brizzi would admit not even reading the statute he was hired to read and then (refuse) to give back the $10,000 he charged his client,” Cohen & Malad managing partner Irwin Levin said in a prepared statement. “Ms. Vangundy was entitled to competent legal advice and Mr. Brizzi didn't give it. Ms. Vangundy's world has been turned upside down.”
The case was filed in the court of Marion Superior Judge Robert Altice Jr., who on Thursday recused himself for unspecified reasons. The matter was pending reassignment to a new judge as of Friday morning.
The suit is the latest in a string of troubles for the embattled former prosecutor. Earlier this month, former deputy prosecutor David Wyser agreed to plead guilty to a federal charge of bribery for his role in the early release of a woman convicted in a murder-for-hire scheme. Brizzi is a target of on ongoing FBI investigation but has not been charged. Brizzi has denied wrongdoing.
Former Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White also accused Brizzi of providing an inadequate defense to protect him from the voter-fraud conviction that forced him from office.
Brizzi, elected prosecutor in 2002 and 2006, chose not to seek re-election in 2010. He was reprimanded by the Indiana Supreme Court in March 2012 for prejudicial statements he made while prosecuting a murder case in 2008. Admitted to the bar in 1994, Brizzi’s license status on the Indiana Roll of Attorneys is active in good standing.