CHARLESTON – Citing the "profoundly disturbing" nature of a Wheeling attorney caught on tape conversing with a convicted felon about acquiring a handgun, and collecting debts, the state Supreme Court has opted to annul, rather than suspend, his law license.
In a decision delivered Sept. 26, the Court voted to annul the license of Mark A. Blevins. The decision came less than three days after the Court heard oral arguments in the case.
The quick decision by the court came as little surprise as at least three justices –- Brent Benjamin, Larry Starcher and Chief Justice Spike Maynard.
During the Sept. 23 hearing before the justices, his attorney, Richard Hollandsworth, barely was able to get a word in during his time to speak. The justices also chided Chief Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel Rachel L. Fletcher Cipoletti for recommending a lenient punishment.
In reply to Benjamin's question as why the Lawyer Disciplinary Board was only recommending a suspension, and not an annulment, for Blevins, Cipoletti said though the case offered "a bizarre set of facts," the recommendation for suspension was based on two reasons. First, there was a never a "furtherance" by Blevins to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct and, second, her research found no similar cases like it either in West Virginia or the United States.
Granted, Cipoletti added, "I'm prepared to be incorrect" and "This Court obviously has the jurisdiction to do what it sees fit."
In her oral argument to the court, Cipoletti asked the Court to suspend Blevins' license for asking Curt Griffin, a two-time convicted felon, to acquire a "throw-away" gun as well as collect outstanding debts from former clients. The conversation between Blevins and Griffin, which occurred in February 2004, is on both audio- and videotape as Griffin, at the time, was serving as a confidential informant for the Ohio Valley Drug Task Force.
In the brief she filed with the court on May 5 outlining the statement of charges against Blevins, Cipoletti alleged he violated Rule 8.4 (a), (b) and (d). All concern professional misconduct with 8.4 (d) specifically addressing "conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice."
Because of that, the Board recommended the court suspend Blevins' license for 18 months, and order him to pay the cost of the disciplinary proceedings. Additionally, the Board asked that Blevins complete nine hours of continuing education in ethics beyond what is required to maintain his license, and be supervised for an additional two years upon completion of his suspension
When it came his time to speak, Hollandsworth was peppered with questions by the justices.
Upon taking the rostrum, Hollandsworth said though the conversation between Blevins and Griffin does look bad, "It is my job is to convince you it is not as it appears." Immediately, Benjamin asked Hollandsworth despite that, did he not find it "disturbing" that Blevins would ask a known felon to obtain a handgun in violation of federal law.
In reply to Benjamin's question, Hollandsworth averred that it was not until well after the conversation that Blevins knew Griffin was a convicted felon.
After answering a question from Maynard about the conversation being on tape, Hollandsworth attempted to offer some context. According to Hollandsworth, Blevins first asked Griffin to help him locate a man who failed to conduct some renovations to his office.
Upon finding the man, Griffin was to report back to Blevins with his address so Blevins could file suit against him. Despite paying him $500, Griffin never attempted to locate the man, Hollandsworth said.
Three months later, Blevins asked William Curtin to see if he could locate Griffin and possibly get his money back. He did, and, according to Hollandsworth, knowing that Blevins was in want of a handgun – specifically a M1911A1 .45 automatic pistol – for personal protection, said Blevins would be willing to forgive the debt if Griffin could locate one.
That drew the disdain of Benjamin who said, "You've got one of the best sporting goods stores right there in Wheeling, " referring to Cabela's. "I've bought some guns there myself. They're not that expensive."
Later on, Benjamin would characterize the conversation Griffin, Curtin and Blevins had at his office in February 2004 "out of something like 'The Sopranos' almost" given all the discussion of physical violence. Hollandsworth agreed, saying that the reason for the movie cliches being bandied about was part of Blevins' "role-playing."
Throughout his argument, Hollandsworth attempted to impress upon the justices that Blevins' words were just that, words. Prior to going into private practice, Hollandsworth said Blevins served as an officer in the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General Corps and Special Forces where he was trained to employ similar role-playing exercises to get at the truth.
In hindsight, Hollandsworth said Blevins sees what happened in this situation was "dumb," and has refrained from engaging in any role-playing exercises. However, Hollandsworth noted that Blevins, during the entire incident, "never once promoted violence."
However, both Benjamin and Starcher found that hard to believe.
"This role-playing is shocking," Benjamin said.
"Even if it's role-playing," Starcher added, "it's no way for attorneys to act."
Going beyond annulment
In its opinion, the court seized on Hollandsworth's role-playing defense for Blevins saying they were "particularly disturbed by the explanation advanced by the respondent herein for his behavior with Griffin. Specifically, the respondent contends that his actions constituted a somewhat fanciful role-playing of some sort."
"Respondent's role-playing begs belief," the Court added. "Combined with the attempt to illegally procure a 'throw-away' gun through a person whom respondent knew to be a convicted felon, the respondent's actions, whether or not violence actually resulted, is profoundly disturbing."
Because of that, the court agreed, with the exception of suspension, with the Board's proposed sanctions for Blevins. In addition to annulment, the court said should Blevins seek readmittance to the Bar after the minimal five-year waiting period, he be ordered to see a psychiatrist to determine "that his ability to practice law will result in the protection of the public."
Though the decision was delivered per curium, Starcher went on record as concurring with the opinion and reserved the right to file a separate opinion.
Following arguments in the case, Hollandsworth said he was disappointed the court refused to grant his motion for a continuance. Though he was present when the case originally was scheduled for Sept. 9, Blevins was unable to make the second trip to Charleston for medical reasons.
Most of the cases scheduled for argument Sept. 9 were rescheduled due to the absence of Justice Joseph P. Albright. The Court announced Albright, who is recovering from surgery to his esophagus, would sit out the remainder of the Court's Fall term and would be replaced by retired Justice Thomas E. McHugh.
Hollandsworth said he wanted Blevins in the court's chambers so the justices could look at him directly and ask him to explain to them why he did what he did.
Also, Hollandsworth said, though still a candidate, Blevins is not actively campaigning for Ohio County prosecutor in November's election because of medical reasons. A Republican, Blevins is running against two-term incumbent Scott Smith.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Case No. 33281