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Askin testifies he might have broken rules, but not the law

Groh agrees with motion that final legal arguments and proposed orders in the case could be submitted in writing

Groh agrees with motion that final legal arguments and proposed orders in the case could be submitted in writing

November 19, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- A well-known former Martinsburg defense attorney charged with practicing law without a license testified Thursday in Berkeley County Circuit Court that he helped people prepare "legal instruments" for their court cases, but strongly denied he was guilty of the criminal offenses alleged.

Steven M. Askin, 61, was indicted by a Berkeley County grand jury in February 2009. If convicted, Askin could be fined as much as $1,000 on each of 11 misdemeanor counts.

After hearing two days of testimony, 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gina M. Groh, over the objection of Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Quasebarth, agreed with Askin's motion that final legal arguments and proposed orders in the case could be submitted in writing.

A decision by Groh on Askin's case is not expected until next year.

On the witness stand Thursday, Askin readily admitted that he might have violated state court rules for unlawfully practicing law that are enforced administratively by the West Virginia State Bar and the state Supreme Court of Appeals.

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"I still don't think (these allegations) come anywhere close to (West Virginia Code section) 30-2-4," Askin said of the criminal statute for practicing law without a license.

Individuals subpoenaed to testify by the state in the two-day trial told the court they talked with Askin about their legal matters over meals at Shoney's restaurant, Waffle House, Burger King, the Blue White Grill, Daily Grind coffee house and at Mountain State University's Martinsburg campus, where Askin still teaches.

Practically every witness who met with Askin indicated they couldn't afford to hire an attorney and had met him through family members or friends. Through the assistance of an interpreter, Toan Huynh of Hagerstown testified that Askin told him he was not an attorney and indicated he needed one for his case.

Askin said one woman gave him $60 after meeting with him about her legal concern and Askin indicated he received $200 to review legal papers that been already filed in another man's case in Frederick County, Va.

While the witnesses said Askin didn't charge a fee for helping them prepare legal motions and other documents, a member of the West Virginia State Bar Committee for the Unlawful Practice of Law, testified Thursday that monetary compensation is irrelevant when the panel considers whether legal services are being improperly provided.

Qualified as a trial expert, attorney Colleen C. McCulloch said the testimony that witnesses gave in the trial made it "very clear" that advice was being provided by Askin.

McCulloch, who traveled from Beckley, W.Va., to testify, gave no opinion as to whether the criminal statute for unlawfully practicing law was breached and was not aware of any "cease and desist" order that had been issued to administratively stop Askin from providing legal help.

Askin's license was annulled in 1998 by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals two years after he voluntarily surrendered it in 1996. That year, he entered a guilty plea to criminal contempt for refusing to testify before a federal judge in a May 1994 drug trial of four defendants, including one of his own clients. All four were convicted. He served a six-month, 20-day sentence in Cumberland, Md.

The criminal prosecution of unlawful law practice now pending against Askin might very well be unprecedented statewide, Quasebarth and Askin have separately said in interviews.

Askin said no individual had been criminally prosecuted on charges of practicing law without a license since the statute was enacted 86 years ago.

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