ROMNEY -- Following a month-long investigation by State Police, a suspended Hampshire County attorney and former county commissioner has been charged with forging a judge's signature on court documents, and embezzling money belonging to former clients.
Donald P. Cookman was charged with four counts of forgery and three counts of embezzlement in Hampshire Magistrate Court on Feb. 13. The following Monday, Cookman turned himself in to State Police Cpl. J. M. Walker at the State Police Barracks in Romney, and he later was arraigned before Senior Status Magistrate Donald Sharpe.
Following his arraignment, Sharpe released Cookman on a $50,000 personal recognizance bond.
The changes against Cookman, 41, follow related investigations by the state Bar into complaints filed against him by his former clients. In addition to a statement of charges filed against him in 2007 stemming from the complaints of 11 of his former clients that included creating bogus judgments replete with the forged signature of the presiding judge, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the Bar's investigative arm, issued a new statement against Cookman in October alleging he embezzled funds from three other clients.
A statement of charges acts like an indictment for disciplinary purposes.
Old, new forgeries
According the criminal complain the filed in magistrate court, Walker on Jan. 8 was provided a copy of the July 8 hearing panel subcommittee report of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board, the Bar's prosecutorial arm. During a hearing the subcommittee held on Dec. 13, 2007 in Romney, Cookman admitted to creating fake judgments in favor of his clients in at least three civil cases, and affixing Judge Andrew Frye's signature either by his own hand or via a photocopier.
Though the subcommittee found that Cookman fabricated orders involving George F. Pacenza and Anne Marie Sherry-Cioffi, James C. Buckley and Walter O. Johnson for $148,139.58, $962,156 and $225,000, respectfully, only Buckley's and Johnson's cases carried over into the criminal complaint. The other two forgery charges are from a 2002 case in Mineral County involving Frederick and Patricia Adams in the adoption of Hope Shanni, and a 2003 civil case in Hampshire County between Derek Crane and Albert Heitt.
Though the complaint says Cookman forged the June 3, 2005 order, it does specify if he was representing Crane or Heitt. The Crane/Heitt and Adams/Shanni cases were not mentioned in the subcommittee's report.
However, during the Dec. 13, 2007, hearing, Cookman admitted to forging Frye's signatures in the cases listed in the subcommittee's report.
Pocketing over $175,000
The three embezzlement charges correspond to the collateral statement ODC filed in October with the state Supreme Court. According to court records, Cookman stands accused of pocketing a cumulative of $179,831.22 from Judith Dean, Mary Good and Cheri Beverage.
According to court records, Dean, a resident of Slansville, retained Cookman to settle the estate of Marjorie Didawick. The home on Didawick's property was sold on Aug. 11, 2008, for $50,000, of which Cookman was to pay Dean $46,420.17.
Starting on Aug. 28, Cookman began making partial payments to Dean. However, a check he wrote to Dean on Dec. 8 drawn on his business account for $13,631.46 was returned for insufficient funds.
In the Good case, Cookman was hired to represent her in a real estate dispute. Court records are unclear as where the case was heard.
However, it was filed in 2005, and settled last year. The settlement, records show, called for Good, a resident of Winchester, Va., to receive $15,000 from State Farm Insurance.
Though the check was made out to Good, records show Cookman endorsed it and deposited it into his business account on Oct. 8.
About a year after Good, records show Cookman accepted Beverage as a client. Beverage, who lives in Romney, hired Cookman to assist her in managing the affairs of Marion Harriot, for whom Beverage held a power-of-attorney.
Records are unclear as to why, but Harriot received regular checks from a Florida law firm. Beverage took the checks and turned them over to Cookman for what she believed was safekeeping.
Sometime in 2006, Beverage requested a disbursement from Cookman of $210,674.86 from Harriott's account. The reason for the disbursement, records show, was to establish a charitable trust in Harriott's name.
In addition to one for an amount not specified in court records, Beverage alleges a check Cookman wrote her in March 2007 for $151,199.76 was returned by the Bank of Romney for insufficient funds. Sometime after the check bounced, Beverage confronted Cookman about it, and he said he was unable to do anything about it as he only had $7,000 at the time.
A downward spiral
Prior to the filing of the criminal charges, Cookman's law license was suspended by order of the Supreme Court on Sept. 25. In addition to suspending him for a year, the Court ordered Cookman to refund retainers to two former clients part of the first statement of charges -- Michael S. McDonald and Steven S. Cowgill -- in the amounts of $1,500 and $2,500, respectfully, within 60 days, continue to seek treatment for alcohol dependency and pay the cost of the disciplinary proceeding.
The court's order came five weeks before the November general election where Cookman was seeking re-election to the Hampshire County Commission. He lost in a landside to his Republican challenger, David R. Parker.
According to Sharpe, Cookman's preliminary hearing on the criminal charges is awaiting the outcome of a meeting between Cookman, his attorney Fred Risovich II of Weirton and Jefferson County Prosecutor Ralph Lorenzetti on March 26. Following a request submitted by Frye on Dec. 9, Lorenzetti was appointed as special prosecutor in the case.
Frye made the request since Cookman's father, Donald H. Cookman, is one of the judges in the 22nd Judicial Circuit which includes Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties.
If convicted, Cookman faces a minimum of 10 years in prison for each embezzlement charge, and up to a year in jail and $500 fine for each forgery charge.
Hampshire County Magistrate Court case number: 09-F-43-49