CHARLESTON – A law clerk recently hired by state Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher has more than a pardon in his past.
Matthew W. Crabtree, 44, was disqualified from acting as a prosecutor in a case because he "harbored emotionally driven bias and hostility" against a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), a tiny Pacific island nation, during a stint there as an assistant attorney general.
He also was denounced by FSM's Congress for "unconstitutional practices" and "repeated acts of unlawful prosecutorial misconduct" in a 2004 resolution.
Crabtree, however, says the resolution simply "reflected a growing sense of frustration and desperation by certain members of the Congress who were under criminal investigation and or had pending criminal charges for acts of government corruption and financial crimes."
Crabtree, who started his job with Starcher in November, worked in the Federated States of Micronesia from at least 2002 until 2005, according to information obtained from FSM's Supreme Court.
Crabtree who was admitted to the FSM Bar on Oct. 8, 2002, according to Craig Reffner, FSM Supreme Court's General Counsel.
Located between Hawaii and Indonesia, FSM (population 108,000) has been a sovereign state since 1986. It formerly was a trust of the United States and still receives about $100 million in foreign aid annually from Washington.
The nation's Congress adopted a resolution dated June 4, 2004 denouncing Crabtree and his actions in one particular case against a citizen of the FSM state of Chuuk.
In his role as assistant AG, Crabtree prosecuted several high-profile cases against allegedly corrupt politicians from Chuuk, including the former Speaker of FSM's Congress. Critics charged the prosecutions were a politically-motivated attempt by then-FSM Vice President Redley Killion to clear a path for himself to the nation's presidency.
Killion lost a re-election bid earlier this month.
Taking down a legend
In the midst of a 2003 election battle between Killion and eleven-term Speaker Jack Fritz, Crabtree and FSM's Department of Justice targeted Fritz on public corruption charges.
Fritz, a lawyer and FSM political legend, was forced to resign. He accepted a lifetime ban from FSM politics and agreed to pay a $4,000 fine but escaped jail time, which Crabtree had sought. His conviction is on appeal.
"Crabtree always insisted he was not following orders and was only going on leads from witnesses who came forward against Fritz, and this may have been true," a source close to the situation told The Record. "But few believe it was mere coincidence that only Killion's political rivals were being targeted."
Crabtree also drew local criticism for executing a search warrant on the estate of a local mayor. The search resulted in a confrontation between a 500-strong mob of the mayor's machete-wielding constituents and the FSM national police.
According to a published report in Pacific Magazine, the mob disarmed and handcuffed Crabtree and his accompanying officers before allowing them to leave.
His side of the story
Crabtree said Thursday that the FSM Congressional Resolution 13-123, was signed by a handful of senators. It "sought to declare me and another West Virginia attorney 'persona non grata,' a power that was specifically reserved to the President of the FSM."
Crabtree noted that the FSM President expressed displeasure in the resolution and issued a statement that he saw no basis for such a drastic action and refused to declare Crabtree and Anthony Welch persona non grata.
"It was believed by those of us in the Department of Justice that the resolution reflected a growing sense of frustration and desperation by certain members of the Congress who were under criminal investigation and or had pending criminal charges for acts of government corruption and financial crimes," Crabtree said. "In the months preceding the resolution, the Congress had, among other things, introduced an 'amnesty bill' by which the Congress was seeking to absolve its members for any past crimes and which further would also have permitted the members to keep any financial gains obtained by unlawful means.
"In another resolution preceding C.R. 13-123, the Congress 'removed' the presiding justice from a major corruption case that the Department of Justice had filed and which involved three former or current members of the 14-member Congress and several other people including national government employees from Department of Finance.
Crabtree said the Department of Justice successfully challenged the constitutionality of the resolution removing the presiding justice, although that process delayed the corruption case for more than a year.
"He was called a hero"
In its resolution denouncing Crabtree, the FSM Congress said his "behavior in pursuing a matter in which he had a conflict of interest due to emotional hostility and personal bias was in violation of his ethical responsibilities."
But not everyone in Micronesia had harsh words about Crabtree.
"I have known Matthew Crabtree for sometime now and have come to respect him for his extensive litigation skills," said Marstella E. Jack, the FSM's Attorney General. "I have never met an attorney who is so meticulous about his work, and I must admit that I learned a lot from him, and he was an inspiration in our litigation division.
"He was called a hero by some when he got the former Speaker of Congress (Fritz) convicted on corruption charges."
Jack said she and Crabtree got along well personally.
"He was not well liked by many people here because he did not have good social skills, but that is typical of any hard-working attorney," she told The Record. "But all in all, he was a good man."
Fond memories of Micronesia
Crabtree said he enjoyed his time in the Pacific.
"I am very proud of the friends I made in Micronesia, and the hard work and effort that everyone at the Department of Justice, including the National Police and the National Public Auditor's office, put into investigating and prosecuting very difficult cases under very trying times and with extremely limited resources – resources that were in essence being strangled by the Congress by a failure to adequately fund the office," he said.
"In one example of this, among many other examples, the Congress even refused to appropriate funds so the Department of Justice could purchase a copy machine so we could copy evidence in criminal cases, thereby necessitating that we take our evidence to the FBI offices in Guam to be copied so as to try and meet discovery deadlines in the various criminal cases."
Still, "I consider my experience in the Federated States of Micronesia to have been one of the most rewarding periods of my life on both a personal and professional level."
His West Virginia past
In West Virginia, Crabtree was pardoned for a 1984 robbery. He was 22 in 1985 when he was convicted of the armed robbery an adult bookstore in Rand. He pleaded guilty to unaggravated robbery and was sentenced to five to 18 years in prison. He served 30 months before former Kanawha Circuit Judge Robert Smith granted him probation.
According to a Charleston Daily Mail story, many people -- including Starcher, who was then a circuit judge in Monongalia County -- lobbied for Crabtree's probation, praising his character and pushing for him to have a second chance to set his life straight.
Crabtree began his current clerk's job in November at an annual salary of $79,200. He previously worked at the Supreme Court overseeing the magistrate court system. He held that job for four months in 2000 before resigning. He is the son of the late Paul Crabtree, a former Supreme Court administrator who died in 1999.
Crabtree graduated from West Virginia University in 1990 and wanted to go to law school, according to the Daily Mail story. But his felony conviction barred him from enrolling.
Gov. Gaston Caperton pardoned him, and he went on to graduate with honors from WVU's law school in 1993.
Then, former Kanawha County Prosecutor Bill Forbes protested Crabtree's entrance to the bar, raising concerns about his criminal history. A circuit judge eventually sealed Crabtree's records, and the then 30-year-old went to work for the Kanawha County Public Defender's Office, according to the Daily Mail.
Crabtree also ran a Kanawha City law firm that entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy in October 2005.
"Matthew Crabtree is a brilliant young attorney who is both a talented writer and trial lawyer," Starcher said in a statement given to The West Virginia Record last month. "He became available in the job market at a time when one of my law clerks was leaving the court. He has a family with three young daughters and needed a job."
Each state Supreme Court justice has two personal clerks who research legal issues and help the judges write opinions on cases. The statement from the court noted that Crabtree's work focuses mostly on workers' compensation cases, but he also writes opinions for Starcher on a variety of other cases.
Coincidentally, Starcher's other clerk – Tom Rodd – also was pardoned after he refused to register for the draft in the 1960s. He also broke terms of his probation by taking part in anti-war protests. He was pardoned in 1981 by President Carter.
The state Supreme Court's rule – which was changed in 2000 – bars anyone ever convicted of a felony, but it says nothing about pardons.