Passing off judge's signature as real nets Lutz probation

Disbarred Charleston attorney John E. Lutz Jr., foreground, is followed by his attorney, Tim Carrico, and an unidentified probation officer following Lutz's sentencing on Oct. 21 in Kanawha Circuit Court for forging a public document. (Photo by Lawrence Smith)

CHARLESTON - A disbarred Charleston attorney will remain a free man for his role in attempting to convince a former client a judge signed-off on a bogus settlement agreement.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles E. King Jr. on Wednesday, Oct. 21 sentenced John E. Lutz Jr. to probation after pleading guilty to a charge of purporting to exercise the function of a public official. For his crime, Lutz, 65, potentially faced up to a year in jail, and a $1,000 fine.

The guilty plea stems from an incident that happened almost two years ago when Lutz allegedly forged Judge Irene C. Berger's signature to a proposed settlement agreement in a civil case involving one of Lutz's former clients, Connie Bergstedt. Suspicious of Lutz since he failed to keep her informed of the case for almost the preceding year, Bergstedt in December 2007 went to Berger's office to confirm the settlement was legitimate.

After conferring with Berger's secretary that no settlement conference was scheduled for February 2008 as Lutz told her, Bergstedt showed the secretary the document containing Berger's purported signature. After viewing the document herself, Berger confirmed to Bergstedt the signature was not hers, and she would refer the matter to police.

Records show Lutz was charged in March 2008 for forgery and uttering, a felony. In May, the Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney's Office dismissed the charges after Lutz agreed to plead guilty to the purporting charge, a misdemeanor.

Six months prior to pleading guilty, Lutz asked the state Supreme Court to voluntarily annul his law license. Lutz' request came in the midst of the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the investigative arm of the state Bar, beginning a related ethics probe into the criminal charges, and facing ethics complaints from least four other clients.

During the five-minute hearing, little was said publicly except for Lutz agreeing to King's questions that he was aware of the charge against him, and it was his intention to plead guilty. Bergstedt was not in the courtroom during Lutz's sentencing.

Since the terms of Lutz's probation where not mentioned during his sentencing, or listed in court records, The West Virginia Record attempted to get a comment from Lutz, and his attorney, Tim Carrico, immediately following the hearing. However, both declined comment as they hastily made an exit from the hallway outside King's courtroom to the stairway.

A call to Eric Cantrell, the assistant prosecutor who was in the courtroom during sentencing, was referred to the Kanawha County Adult Probation Office. A woman who answered the telephone said the terms were not available since they had yet to receive paperwork from King's office.

Despite his criminal case behind him, Lutz's legal woes are far from over. He, along with his former law partners, J.W. Riccardi and Raymond G. Dodson, are named in a legal malpractice suit filed by Ann M. Davis, who accuses them of letting the statute of limitations expire on a fraud lawsuit against James Sullivan, a broker with Lehman Brothers.

In her suit filed on July 14, Davis alleges she went to Lutz to help her recover the $99,000 she alleges Sullivan "negligently and fraudulently" invested for her. Records show Lutz was served with Davis' suit on Aug. 17, but has yet to file an answer.

Kanawha Circuit Court case number 09-M-55

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