Fla. bar drafting complaint against ex-lawyer of runaway Ohio teen Muslim-to-Christian convert

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Attorney faulted in runaway Ohio teen convert case

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A professional organization for lawyers said Thursday it is drafting a misconduct complaint against the former attorney of a teenager from Ohio who ran away to Florida after converting to Christianity.

John Stemberger, an Orlando, Fla., lawyer, represented Rifqa Bary after she alleged her Muslim parents in suburban Columbus would harm her for converting.

The Florida Bar’s grievance committee found enough evidence of alleged misconduct to prepare a complaint, said bar spokeswoman Karen Kirksey.

The bar looked into the matter after a formal complaint was filed with the group by Ohio lawyer Omar Tarazi, who represented Bary’s parents in Ohio juvenile court.

Tarazi alleged Stemberger misrepresented himself as Bary’s lawyer after Bary returned to Ohio and had new lawyers. Tarazi, who is Muslim, also accused Stemberger of alleging that Tarazi has terrorist ties.

The bar committee expects to file its complaint with the Florida Supreme Court this fall. Messages were left Thursday for Stemberger.

Stemberger is also named in a $10 million federal defamation lawsuit Tarazi filed earlier this month raising some of the same complaints.

Stemberger called that lawsuit a frivolous publicity stunt and said he welcomed the chance to document his statements about Tarazi.

Bary ran away to Florida last year when she was still 16 with the help of Christian ministers she met on Facebook. She said she could be hurt or killed because she converted to Christianity.

Stemberger represented Bary after Florida took custody of her. After authorities returned Bary to Ohio, she was represented by new attorneys while a juvenile court judge tried unsuccessfully to reconcile Bary and her family.

Bary, who was an illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka, left the custody of the county children’s service agency after turning 18 last month. She received her green card a couple of weeks later. She has refused all interviews.

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