The North Carolina bar filed ethics charges Thursday against the prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse rape case, accusing him of saying misleading and inflammatory things to the media about the athletes under suspicion.
The punishment for ethics violations can range from admonishment to disbarment.
Among the four rules of professional conduct that District Attorney Mike Nifong is accused of violating is a prohibition against making comments "that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused."
In a statement, the bar said it opened a case against Nifong on March 30, a little more than two weeks after a 28-year-old woman hired to perform as a stripper at a lacrosse team party said she was gang-raped.
The ethics charges will be heard by an independent body called the Disciplinary Hearing Commission, made up of lawyers and non-lawyers.
Nifong did not immediately return a call for comment.
The bar cited 40 quotations and eight paraphrased statements made to newspaper and TV reporters. Most of the comments were in March and April, in the early days of the case.
_ Nifong referred to the lacrosse players as "a bunch of hooligans."
_ He declared: "I am convinced there was a rape, yes, sir."
_ He told ESPN: "One would wonder why one needs an attorney if one was not charged and had not done anything wrong."
_ He told The New York Times: "I'm disappointed that no one has been enough of a man to come forward. And if they would have spoken up at the time, this may never have happened."
Nifong was also charged with breaking a rule against "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation." The bar said that when DNA testing failed to find any evidence a lacrosse player raped the accuser, Nifong told a reporter the players might have used a condom.
According to the bar, Nifong knew that assertion was misleading, because he had received a report from an emergency room nurse in which the accuser said her attackers did not use a condom.
Last week, Nifong dropped the rape charges against the athletes after the stripper wavered in her story, saying she was longer certain she was penetrated vaginally with a penis, as she had claimed several times before. The men still face charges of kidnapping and sexual offense.
The athletes, Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans, have maintained their innocence and called the charges "fantastic lies." The case is not expected to go to trial until at least the spring.