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Panel recommends disbarment for Askin

September 17, 1997

By DON AINES

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Board panel has recommended disbarment for a Berkeley County attorney who served a jail sentence for criminal contempt, allegedly used cocaine with clients and mishandled a client's money.

The Hearing Panel Subcommittee recommended a five-year disbarment for Steven M. Askin.

"That's the most severe sanction that can be imposed," said Sherri D. Goodman, chief lawyer for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

The decision on whether Askin will be disbarred is now in the hands of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Goodman said.

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Askin served seven months in prison after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in 1995 to one count of criminal contempt in connection with a drug case.

The three-member panel, composed of two lawyers and a layperson, noted that Askin had been called to testify in a federal drug trafficking case in Martinsburg in 1994, but refused to answer questions after the court granted him immunity. According to the panel, Askin also "used cocaine with his clients and counseled them on how to avoid detection of their cocaine distribution activity by law enforcement personnel."

In a federal case against Mark T. McNulty, the panel also concluded Askin "had a personal interest in not having his client, Robin Brumbaugh, plead guilty, because she could provide evidence against him."

In September 1994 Askin was indicted for conspiracy to deliver cocaine. The federal indictment alleged that from 1982 on, he had used cocaine, financed its purchase to then be sold by others and helped them avoid detection by identifying police informants.

In May 1995 he pleaded guilty to criminal contempt of court in exchange for the drug charge being dismissed and was later sentenced to prison.

The panel said Askin was "convicted of a crime that reflected adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer ..." It also concluded he placed his own interests before those of his clients.

Each side has 30 days to submit objections to the report to the state Supreme Court, Goodman said Tuesday. Goodman added she anticipates Askin's attorney will file objections.

"The court then sets a briefing and oral arguments schedule," Goodman explained. After that, the high court could decide to uphold or dismiss the recommendation, or issue its own ruling.

Askin's attorney in Charleston did not return a telephone call Tuesday.

If Askin is disbarred, the panel recommended it be retroactive to Jan. 30, 1996, when he became inactive as an attorney. Should Askin resume his practice at the end of that time, the panel recommended he be supervised for a period of two years.

The panel also found that Askin had mishandled his corporate accounts and a client's trust account.

Askin had represented Joseph I. Nazelrod, convicted in 1993 of first-degree murder for the shooting death of his wife Tammy on Nov. 25, 1990. During the course of his defense of Nazelrod, the report showed Askin was paid $18,731.06 in legal fees and expenses.

The attorney allegedly failed to keep all of the money in a client's trust account and commingled it with his corporate account. The members also decided that Askin had failed to make full and prompt payment to Allen Hewitt, an investigator he employed in that and other cases.

For those violations, the hearing panel recommended Askin pay Hewitt $1,277.37 plus 10 percent annual interest from May 1, 1994. It also recommended his license be suspended for six months.

The trust account issue was the subject of a hearing before the panel on Sept. 30, 1995, but Goodman said the mitigation hearing requested by Askin on the disbarment proceeding was not completed until January of this year.

"Both cases had a number of exhibits and materials to review. The trust account case had complex issues," Goodman said. She had requested the panel issue its reports on both cases at the same time.

Regarding the trust account case, the panel's report called Askin's bookkeeping "horrendous."

Goodman said when she petitioned the court to disbar Askin she wanted the trust fund and criminal contempt cases considered at the same time. She said she believes the way Askin handled his finances and his alleged drug activities were related.

She said there are other complaints pending against Askin, primarily involving his fees and refunds he reportedly owed to clients when he became inactive.

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