Wheeling attorney faces suspension for using felon to collect debts

By Lawrence Smith | Aug 22, 2008

CHARLESTON – The state Bar is seeking the suspension of an Ohio County attorney's license for allegedly asking a known felon to obtain a "throw away" gun, and use it in conjunction with collecting debts from former clients.

Among the first cases the state Supreme Court will hear in its 2008-09 term that begins September 2 is Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Mark A. Blevins. The case is scheduled for arguments on Sept. 9.

In its brief filed with the Court on May 5, the Board, the prosecutorial arm of the state Bar, alleges that Blevins, who operates a sole practice in Wheeling, hired a two-time felon to purchase a cheap or "throw away" gun. The gun, the Board alleges, was for the felon to use to "take steps, including the use of, and threats of physical force, to collect the outstanding legal fees" former clients owed Blevins.

Despite the fact that the gun was never purchased and no clients were ever harassed, the Board felt that the aggravating factors in the case warrants punishment for Blevins. Such "misconduct could have resulted in significant injury to his former clients, as well as significant damage to public confidence in the Bar and the administration of justice, particularly when lawful avenues were open to Respondent [Blevins] to collect the money owed to him and obtain the gun he wanted."

Plans go awry

According to its brief, the Board alleges Blevins, who was admitted to the Bar in 1993, paid Curtis Griffin $500 sometime in November or December 2003 to collect an outstanding debt from a former client. The name of the client and the amount he or she allegedly owed Blevins is not mentioned in the brief.

Apparently, Griffin did not follow through on his commitment as three months later, Blevins hired William Curtin to locate Griffin and recover the $500. Curtin, records show, was successful in his endeavor.

On Feb. 19, 2004, Curtin contacted Griffin via telephone "to discuss possible ways of settling the outstanding debt." One way, the Board alleges, was for Griffin to obtain a gun for Blevins.

If Griffin could obtain the gun, Curtin told him his "debt would be forgiven."

Unbeknownst to either Blevins or Curtin, who, according to the Board, was working for Blevins as an investigator, Griffin was working for the Ohio Valley Drug Task Force as a confidential informant. Many of the conversations between Griffin, Curtin and Blevins were recorded including one on Feb. 21, 2004.

On that day, Blevins expressed his desire for Griffin to still attempt to collect debts from former clients. According to the Board, Blevins told Griffin "Curtin could assist him in locating the former clients, and retrieving the money."

"In exchange for locating these former clients and collecting the monies, Respondent also offered to share a portion of the recovered fees with Mr. Griffin as the bounty," the Board alleges.

During the meeting, "Griffin reminded Respondent that he was a two-time felon." Though the Board does not specify where and when Griffin was convicted, Blevins in his reply states that at least one occurred in 2004 in Marshall County.

According to the brief, Blevins gave Griffin a list of four clients, two from Ohio and two from Pennsylvania, who owned him $15,000 collectively. If Griffin could collect all of it, Blevins offered to pay him upward of one-third of the proceeds.

Also, should Griffin succeed in collecting from the first four clients, Blevins had additional clients he wanted to pay up, including an attorney in Washington, D.C., who owed him $25,000. Nevertheless, the collection efforts on the first four clients were to take place when Blevins was out of town, the Board alleges.

On both Feb. 24 and 25, 2004, Curtin and Griffin met to discuss their plans to collect the debts and what items they may need including the gun. On the latter day, the Board alleges, "[t]he pair spoke of their plan to collect the money without giving up their identities."

However, the plans were not implemented as "shortly after these discussions Mr. Griffin was arrested on unrelated charges and the surveillance was discontinued by OVDTF."

Regardless, OVDTF continued an investigation into possible criminal activity committed by Blevins. In a statement he provided on Nov. 4, 2004, Curtin admitted Blevins "directed him to locate a gun that he 'could throw away.' "

Likewise, while Curtin admitted to "discuss[ing] various ways that involved violence to collect money from [Blevins'] former clients" with Griffin, they never followed through with their plans. Instead, Curtin says his discussions with Griffin was " 'just a little excitement hangin [sic] out and talking like a tuff [sic] guy.' "

Simply role-playing

Though records are unclear as to who initiated the complaint against Blevins, it was filed in 2005 with a formal statement of charges brought against him on Dec. 28, 2006. Blevins, with the assistance of fellow Wheeling attorney Richard W. Hollingsworth, filed a reply to the statement on March 23, 2007.

In the reply, Blevins admits to hiring Griffin. However, it was not to collect a debt from a former client, but only locate a man named Horbatak.

According to Blevins, he gave Horbatak $8,000 to distribute to subcontractors working on his office at 1415 Chapline Street only to see Horbatak pocket the money. Griffin was only to find Horbatak so Blevins could file suit against him.

Also, Blevins admits to hiring Curtin to locate Griffin to recover the $500 paid to him. The gun, Blevins said, was only in exchange for the debt Griffin owed him, and not to threat former clients.

Furthermore, during the Feb. 21, 2004 meeting, Blevins maintains he did discuss how several clients owed him money, and that Griffin and Curtin would work together to collect it. During the meeting, Blevins acknowledges Griffin telling him that he was a two-time felon.

Finally, Blevins avers that "his conduct was meant only for the eyes of William Curtin and Curt Griffin as a role he was playing to either be returned the $500 Curt Griffin took under false pretenses or to obtain something of value that was equivalent to $500." Once he discovered Griffin might take action on their role-playing exercise, Blevins told him to cease any activity and wrote-off his $500 debt.

No excuse

In its brief, the Board said it wasn't buying Blevins' role-playing excuse. In addition to the role-played acts being criminal in nature, and if completed, could have resulted in prosecution, "[ i]t is not believable that any attorney, let alone one who has an extensive criminal defense practice, would only 'pretend' to hire a known criminal capable of extreme violence and condone criminal behavior in an attempt to obtain a gun and collect a debt."

Because Blevins presented little, if any evidence, of mitigating factors in his behavior, the Board found the aggravating factors he "acted both intentionally and knowingly" to violate "duties he owed to his former clients, to the legal system and to the profession" sufficient to charge him with violating the Rules of Professional Conduct. According to the Board's brief, Blevins is charged with violating Rule 8.4 (a), 8.4 (b) and 8.4 (d), which all deal with professional misconduct.

As punishment, the Board is asking the Court to suspend Blevins' license for 18 months, and order him to pay the cost of the disciplinary proceedings. Upon completion of his suspension, the Board asks 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.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Case No. 33281

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