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Former Martinsburg lawyer fined, plans to appeal

July 29, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A well-known former Martinsburg defense attorney was fined $1,100 Thursday and ordered to pay court costs by a circuit judge who found him guilty of 11 misdemeanor counts of practicing law without a license in May.

Steven M. Askin, 62, could have been fined up to $1,000 per count at his sentencing hearing, but 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gina M. Groh concluded that Askin's legal advice, while in violation of the law in her opinion, did not appear to hurt any of the people that authorities said he helped.

Based on evidence and testimony presented in Askin's two-day trial in November, Groh said she didn't feel that the former attorney profited from his work and added that she believes Askin provided legal advice to people "out of compassion" for them.

While pleased that Groh decided against imposing the maximum fine that Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Quasebarth had requested, Askin said after the hearing that he intends to appeal his conviction to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

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Quasebarth argued Thursday that Askin deserved to receive the maximum fine because his actions were harmful to the justice system and the community needed to be assured by the court that such activity would not be tolerated. Quasebarth also contended that Askin actually led the individuals that he advised "astray" while talking with them about their legal troubles.

Indicted in February 2009, Askin has said that no individual ever had been criminally prosecuted on charges of practicing law without a license since the statute was enacted more than 85 years ago. His misdemeanor conviction is not a jailable offense.

Askin's license was annulled by the state's high court in 1998, two years after he voluntarily surrendered it. He entered a guilty plea in 1996 to criminal contempt for refusing to testify before a federal judge in a May 1994 drug trial of four defendants, including one of his clients. All four were convicted.

He served a six-month, 20-day prison sentence in Cumberland, Md.

Askin testified in November 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.

But Askin doesn't think the allegations meet the threshold of the criminal statute for practicing without a license.

Individuals who testified during the two-day trial said they talked with Askin about their legal matters over meals at local restaurants and at Mountain State University's Martinsburg campus, where Askin had taught classes. He no longer teaches there.

Almost every witness who met with Askin indicated they couldn't afford to hire an attorney and had met him through family members or friends.

"I (didn't) go out of my way to hurt anybody," Askin told the judge on Thursday. Askin also reiterated that he didn't seek the people out that he helped, or solicit them. Askin also said he tried to find attorneys for the individuals, which often could not afford an attorney.

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

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