Suspended attorney faces criminal charge for forging judge's signature

By Lawrence Smith | Jan 16, 2009

CHARLESTON – A Hampshire County attorney recently suspended for falsifying court documents, including forging a judge's signature, may soon face related criminal charges, the Hampshire County Prosecutor's Office has confirmed.

Though he could not speak at length because an investigation is pending, Hampshire County Prosecutor Stephen Moreland did say that a referral has been made to West Virginia State Police concerning Donald P. Cookman forging the signature of Grant Circuit Judge Andrew M. Frye. Also, Moreland confirmed that the WVSP inquiry is a result of the findings of a state Bar investigation.

According to court records, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the investigative arm of the state Bar, filed a nine-count statement of charges against Cookman on Aug. 21, 2007. The statement, which acts like an indictment for disciplinary purposes, came as a result of ODC finding merit to the complaints lodged by 11 of Cookman's clients between May 11, 2005 and June 22, 2006 plus his failure to respond to their inquiry into those complaints.

The 11 clients were Garland P. Broadwater Jr., George F. Pacenza and Anne Marie Sherry-Cioffi, Thomas and Joyce Norton, Mike S. McDonald, David A. Buckley, Randall L. Buckley, Bruce G. Lauber, Ronald W. Ryan, Steven S. Cowgill, Walter O. Johnson and James C. Buckley.

In its report filed July 8 with the state Supreme Court, the hearing panel subcommittee of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board, the prosecutorial arm of the state Bar, found that Cookman, 41, who was admitted to the Bar in 1992, engaged in a "pattern of conduct in falsely representing to his clients he had been working on their cases."

Cookman's conduct, the Board found, included "creating false court documents and providing the false documents to his clients in order to perpetuate his lies to his clients."

According to its report, the Board found that Cookman created fake orders in cases involving Pacenza and Sherry-Cioffi, James C. Buckley and Johnson. All the orders showed they'd been awarded at least a six-figure judgment in their respective civil suits including Johnson's whose "order" totaled almost $1 million.

In fabricating Pacenza's and Sherry-Cioffi's and Buckley's judgment orders, which came to $148,139.58 and $962,156, respectively, Cookman "first draft[ed] the body of the order and then photocop[ied] the Clerk's 'date filed' stamp and the signature of Judge Andrew M. Frye Jr., onto the fake orders." For Johnson's order, which showed his judgment for $125,000 for breach of contract, $25,000 for annoyance and inconvenience and $75,000 in punitive damages, Cookman "testified that he forged the signature of Judge Frye on the false order."

Cookman's admission of forgery came during the subcommittee's Dec. 13, 2007 hearing on the statement in Romney, records show.

It is not immediately clear why Frye, a judge in the 21st Judicial Circuit which includes, Grant, Mineral and Tucker counties, was assigned all the cases involving the false orders in Hampshire County, which along with Hardy and Pendleton counties, is part of the 22nd Judicial Circuit. However, Cookman is the son Donald H. Cookman, one of judges in the 22nd Circuit.

Legal, political fallout

Because of his conduct, the Board recommended that Cookman's license be suspended for three years, continue to seek treatment for alcohol dependence, pay the cost of the disciplinary proceeding and be supervised for an additional two years upon reinstatement. Also, the Board recommended that the Court order Cookman to reimburse McDonald and Cowgill their respective retainers of $1,500 and $2,500.

On Sept. 25, the Court agreed with most of the Board's recommendations including repayment to McDonald and Cowgill. According to the Court's order, Cookman was to refund McDonld's and Cowgill's retainer within 60 days.

However, instead of a three-year suspension as the Board recommended, the Court ordered Cookman suspended for one year.
Despite its leniency, the Court's decision significantly impacted Cookman's future.

The Court's order came just over a month before the November general election where Cookman was seeking re-election to the Hampshire County Commission. According to the Times-News in Cumberland, Md., which ran two articles on his suspension prior to the election, Cookman, a Democrat, lost to his Republican challenger, David R. Parker, 5,523 to 2,470, and a $36,300 part-time job.

The West Virginia Record attempted to get a comment from Cookman about his suspension. However, he was not immediately available for comment.

Similar case

Along with Charleston attorney John Lutz, Cookman is the second attorney to be under investigation for forging a judge's signature.

In March, Lutz was charged with one count of uttering following a criminal complaint filed with the State Police by Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene C. Berger that the signature on a proposed settlement order was not hers.

The alleged forgery came to Berger's attention shortly before Christmas 2007. It was then that Connie Bergstedt, who was the plaintiff in the civil suit Lutz helped file, stopped by Berger's office to verify a settlement in her case had been made.

After he waived his preliminary hearing in Kanawha Magistrate Court, Lutz's case was bound over the grand jury where it's still pending presentment. Court records show ODC in August requested a copy of his file from the Kanawha Circuit Clerk's Office.

It is unclear if there's any connection, but Lutz later petitioned the Court to have his license voluntarily annulled, which the Court granted on Nov. 5. Similar to Cookman, Lutz was being treated for alcohol dependency, and had several clients lodge complaints with ODC about his failure to perform work despite being paid a retainer.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Case No. 33519

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