Iowa lawyer gets $285K in false arrest settlement

Raymond Tinnian

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Police and prosecutors will pay $285,000 to an Iowa lawyer who spent 16 days in jail after he was allegedly framed by a longtime tormentor and falsely accused of threatening witnesses and a juror.

The payment from the city of Coralville and Johnson County settles a lawsuit filed by Raymond Tinnian, who alleged that authorities were fooled and pursued the wrong man.

Tinnian, a court-appointed attorney in eastern Iowa, said the settlement compensates him for a personal nightmare and travesty of justice. He recalls being led into a courtroom where he practiced law for years in shackles following his 2014 arrest, being ordered held on a $100,000 bond and shipped off to jail — while investigators were ignoring his alibi evidence and claims he’d been set up.

“This is a very good day for me, but I’m sorry that there are so many other victims,” said Tinnian, 57, of Kalona. “They didn’t get justice because the state blew their chance to catch the actual wrongdoers.”

Coralville detectives and Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness do not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, which will be paid by the municipalities’ insurer. It avoids a trial where an expert was planning to testify that their investigation was incompetent and included false information to justify Tinnian’s arrest.

The case began in 2014 when Tinnian was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct following an altercation with Coralville resident Alan Swack. Tinnian claimed self-defense, but jurors found him guilty.

Days later, jurors received letters purporting to be from Tinnian pressuring them to change their verdict. Swack found his tires slashed and a note warning “I WILL GET YOUR FAMILY NEXT.” Months later, another witness found her home spray-painted and a note warning reading: “RECANT YOUR LIES.” That day, juror Joyce Meyer found her home vandalized and a note reading: “NO COPS OR YOU WON’T LIVE TO SEE 70.” Meyer had filed an ethics complaint against Tinnian after receiving the earlier letter.

Tinnian was the obvious suspect. But he denied involvement and told investigators he was likely being framed by his longtime nemesis, Thomas Harbit. Tinnian claimed he had been the victim of similar vandalism and threats and provided them with materials supporting his allegations. During Tinnian’s trial, Harbit had penned a bizarre letter to the judge railing against Tinnian. Harbit also lived in Coralville near where the vandalism incidents occurred.

Tinnian and Harbit were colleagues at the law firm of Dennis Bjorklund, a notorious drunk driving defense attorney. Harbit, a substance abuse counselor, and Bjorklund had an improper arrangement in which they referred clients to each other and charged excessive fees. Tinnian reported them for ethical violations, helping prompt the suspension of Harbit’s license and Bjorklund’s disbarment. Bjorklund spent years running from the FBI on fraud charges until his capture in 2015. He recently pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Tinnian alleges Harbit and Bjorklund have tried to ruin his life in retaliation for his testimony. The two filed dozens of frivolous lawsuits and complaints against him, and Tinnian blames vicious online harassment he’s suffered on them.

Tinnian also offered investigators records that showed his cell phone was pinging to a tower in Kalona on the night vandalism occurred 25 miles away.

Investigators didn’t share that information with judges who signed warrants finding probable cause to arrest Tinnian and search his home. Instead, they provided a key false statement: They claimed Tinnian knew Meyer had filed the ethics complaint before her home was vandalized. Tinnian didn’t receive the complaint until later. Investigators received the false information from Lyness, who testified that police should have done more to investigate the timeline.

Tinnian was jailed for 16 days and 4 hours until posting bond.

While he awaited trial, investigators finally looked into Harbit. Searches of computers and homes uncovered evidence that Harbit possessed Tinnian’s credit report, repeatedly searched online for “Raymond Tinnian” and had a Facebook chat with Tinnian’s ex-wife in which they discussed ways to destroy his life. Tinnian was acquitted after arguing he had been framed by Harbit, who hasn’t been charged. A phone listing for Harbit rang unanswered. Investigators have said they have no intention of reopening the case.