Bluefield attorney faces reprimand for sexually suggestive correspondence with client

By Lawrence Smith | Jan 8, 2010

CHARLESTON - The state Bar believes a Mercer County attorney acted inappropriately when he made romantic overtures to a female inmate he was helping with a divorce.

CHARLESTON - The state Bar believes a Mercer County attorney acted inappropriately when he made romantic overtures to a female inmate he was helping with a divorce.

Among the cases the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear when it returns for its Spring term on Jan. 12, is Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Kenneth E. Chittum. The Board, the Bar's prosecutorial arm, is asking the Court to reprimand Chittum for inappropriate communication with a female inmate, and failing to return her belongings in a timely fashion.

Also, the Board's case against Chittum includes allegations he co-mingled funds from a settlement his wife was awarded in a personal injury suit.

Business and pleasure

According to court records, Chittum, an attorney in Bluefield, was appointed as guardian ad litem for Deborah L. Stevenson shortly after her husband filed for divorce in June 2004. Though records are not specific, Stevenson at the time was incarcerated at a federal prison.

From the time he was appointed to when the divorce was finalized in September 2004, Chittum "engaged in a long distance relationship with [Stevenson] with the purpose of developing the same into a sexual relationship." The relationship, records show, was done exclusively through telephone calls, and letters Chittum would make or write unrelated to his role as her attorney.

In one letter, Chittum asked Stevenson to send him a picture of her since the ".. g[o]t good very good feelings when I talk to you or read your letters. I'm a little careful [sic] with what I write and very careful of what I say over the phone put I think you can read between the lines."

In another letter, Chittum stated "my oral foreplay for you, about 2 hours of that should be good for a start??" He concluded the letter with "XOXO."

Records show, Chittum and Stevenson continued their correspondence into 2005. In later 2004, and early 2005, Chittum told her he was going to help her file a writ of habeas corpus, and speak with the U.S. Attorney's Office about getting her a reduction in sentence.

He never did.

Stevenson lodged her complaint against Chittum in September 2005 when he refused to accept calls from her or respond to her letters concerning legal matters. Though she expressed satisfaction in the way Chittum handled her divorce, she was concerned about not receiving belongings her husband was to turn over to her.

Though she cannot take possession of the belongings until her release in 2016, Stevenson asked Chittum to deliver them to her grandmother in Virginia. Twice Chittum attempted to have the belongings delivered toe the grandmother, and twice she forgot to be home when the delivery arrived.

Chittum again attempted to have the belongings delivered, but discovered the grandmother remarried and moved. He informed the Board he has the belongings in storage facility where he also keeps old case files.

In the midst of reviewing the Stevenson complaint, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the Bar's investigative arm, opened its own inquiry into Chittum's co-mingling of client funds with his personal funds. The source of the co-mingling, records show, came from a $200,000 settlement Chittum's wife, Teresa, received in December 2003 as settlement from an automobile accident.

Instead of depositing the $200,000 into a client trust account, Chittum deposited it into another general trust account at other bank. By the end of December, records show Chittum wrote checks totaling over $80,000 not related to litigation expenses.

Reprimand and supervision

For co-mingling funds, and failure to establish a separate client trust account, the Board charged Chittum with two counts of violating the Rules of Professional Conduct dealing with safekeeping of property.

Also, the Board charged Chittum with Rules violations dealing with communication, diligence and misconduct regarding Stevenson's complaint. Though the two never had a physical relationship, the Board felt his sexual innuendoes were unprofessional given the attorney/client relationship.

In addition to the reprimand, the Board is asking the Court to place Chittum, who was admitted to the Bar on Jan. 30, 1993, on a supervised practice for two years as well as have a CPA audit his practice for two years, and submit regular reports to ODC. Also, the Board wants Chittum to take nine additional hours of continuing education, specifically in the areas of ethics and office management, have Stevenson's personal belongings delivered to a place of her designation 20 days after the Court's order and pay the cost of the disciplinary proceeding.

Chittum's attorney, David L. White, did not object to the Board's recommendations. He did, however, want the record to reflect that Chittum got in "over his head" in his communication with Stephenson, and no harm came to any of his clients for the co-mingling of the settlement Teresa received.

Three discipline cases

The Chittum case is one of three attorney discipline cases the Court is scheduled to hear Jan. 12. In fact, all three top the Court's docket that day.

Prior to Chittum's, the Court will hear the Board's cases against G. Patrick Stanton Jr. and Jeffrey L. Barton. Stanton, and Barton are lawyers in Clarksburg, and Nitro, respectfully,

Similarly to Chittum, Staton is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a female inmate. Unlike Chittum, however, the inmate was not his client, and they did have a brief sexual encounter when he visited her at the Pruntytown Correctional Center in 2005 while he was director of the state Office of Consumer Advocacy.

Barton is accused of converting money awarded to a former client in a personal injury lawsuit for his personal use. The conversion of funds came after the woman died, and he charged the estate a fee when the executrix requested an accounting of funds belonging to it.

The Board is asking Stanton be admonished, and Barton be disbarred.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, case number 34733

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