Disbarred Martinsburg attorney convicted for UPL plans appeal

By Lawrence Smith | May 21, 2010

MARTINSBURG -- In what may be a legal first in West Virginia, a person has been criminally convicted for the unauthorized practice of law.

Berkeley Circuit Judge Gina Groh on May 12 found Steven M. Askin guilty on the 11 counts of practicing law without a license for which he was indicted in February 2009. According to The Hagerstown, Md. Herald-Mail, Groh issued her decision in a 46-page order following a two-day bench trial in November.

Ironically, Askin, 62, practiced law for 23 years until he was disbarred by the state Supreme Court in 1998. His disbarment came following his conviction for criminal contempt.

Records show in May 1994, Askin refused to obey U.S. District Judge Irene B. Keeley's order that he testify in drug trials of four defendants, two of whom were his clients. Askin refused on the grounds that federal investigators obtained information through improper wiretaps contrary to the Fourth Amendment, and that any conversation between he and two of the defendants was protected under the attorney-client privilege.

After he exhausted his appeals attempting to quash the subpoena to testify, Askin plead guilty to a charge of criminal contempt on May 22, 1995. He was sentenced to seven months in prison which he served at the Federal Correctional Institute in Cumberland, Md.

Records show prior to his sentencing in January 1996, Askin voluntarily surrendered his license and began to close his practice. The annulment of his license was made retroactive to Jan. 30, 1996.

Breaking new ground

In speaking with The West Virginia Record, Askin said he intends to appeal Groh's decision. Research he's conducted on the statute prohibiting UPL shows since its enactment in 1923 nobody has ever been criminally convicted.

According to his reading of the statute, Askin said the only time someone can be convicted for UPL is if the person portrays himself to be a lawyer, including arguing a case in a court of law on behalf of someone else, and charging for services. Since his disbarment, Askin said he's done none of that.

Instead, Askin admitted that over the years he's helped people draft documents that they later file pro se. All those he's helped, Askin said, have been people he's known, and have approached him.

Also, Askin admitted that what he did is potentially UPL. However, he said the statute only provides for administrative, and not criminal, sanctions to be applied for his actions.

A legal disruption

According to Askin, he was first accused of UPL in 2006 when he applied to have his license reinstated. His intent was not to actually practice law, but just to say he was member in good standing with the state Bar.

Before the Court could rule on his reinstatement, it received word of a potential UPL complaint which it referred to the Bar's UPL Committee. A year later the committee found no substance to the complaint.

In 2008, Askin said he again petitioned the Court to reinstate his license. The only person to oppose it, he says, was Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Jean Games-Neely.

The reason for her opposition, Askin said, was that she was fearful he would be training young lawyers to "disrupt the legal system" like he did when he was as a criminal defense attorney.

It is no coincidence, Askin said, that he was indicted for UPL last year as the Court, again, was mulling his petition for reinstatement of his license. If anybody is disrupting anything, it's Games-Neely from the working class getting justice, Askin said.

"The prosecutor was getting mad because I was helping people go to court pro se and beat the system," Askin said.

The fact that the Supreme Court has never addressed a criminal UPL conviction is part of the reason he intends to file an appeal. Should they uphold the conviction, "I'll deal with it" he said.

In the meantime, Askin is scheduled to be sentenced on June 24. He faces a fine of up to $1,000 for each count.

Berkeley Circuit Court case number 09-M-3

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