Assistant Wood prosecutor subject of ethics complaints prior to suit

By Lawrence Smith | Sep 10, 2010

CHARLESTON -– Prior to being named as a co-defendant in a wrongful prosecution suit, records show an assistant Wood County prosecutor's conduct has before been called into question.

Since coming to work at the Wood County Prosecutor's Office, Sean Francisco's work has been the subject to two ethics complaints filed with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the investigative arm of the state Bar. One alleged he was handling cases before being properly admitted to the Bar, and the other accused him of failing to communicate with a crime victim.

In October 2000, Alan Simms, an Elizabeth attorney, and then-chairman of the Bar's District Three Character Committee accused Francisco of appearing in court as an assistant prosecutor before becoming a duly licensed attorney. The complaint was actually filed against former Wood County Prosecutor Ginny Conley, who is named as a co-defendant with Francisco in a pending wrongful prosecution suit filed by Parkersburg businessman Jeff Corra.

In the complaint, Simms alleged between the time he was hired in October 1999 and March 2000, Francisco "functioned essentially as a paralegal" for the prosecutor's office. Though Francisco applied for and received Rule 10 certification from the state Supreme Court in November 2009, Simms says that was improper.

According to the complaint, Rule 10 of the West Virginia Rules of Admission to the Practice of Law permits law students to make appearances in court on behalf of the state. However, that is only good until six months past their graduation, and they "must sit for the bar examination following his or graduation from law school."

Following graduation from the University of Baltimore Law School in May 1999, Francisco was admitted to the Maryland Bar the following July. However, he sat for the West Virginia bar exam in February 2000, but did not pass it.

According to the Bar's Web site, Francisco was admitted in West Virginia on Jan. 9, 2001.

In her defense, Conley said she was "honoring, in good faith, a certification issued by the Supreme Court." Also, she noted that Francisco ceased performing any duties as an assistant prosecutor once the Committee began making its inquiry.

Records show on March 30, 2001, the Lawyer Disciplinary Board, the Bar's prosecutorial arm, dismissed the complaint. In his closing letter, Allan Karlin, chairman of the Board's investigative panel, agreed that since the Court approved Francisco's Rule 10 admission, Conley acted in good faith in allowing him to practice law as an assistant prosecutor.

"Although [Conley] could have taken better steps to ensure that Mr. Francisco was eligible to practice law under Rule 10," Karlin said, "she as acting under the West Virginia Supreme Court's certification."

Five years later, Robert H. Dixon lodged a complaint against Francisco. In it, he accused Francisco of not being forthcoming in providing information about a battery case where Dixon was the victim.

According to his complaint, Dixon, a North Charleston, S.C. resident, was visiting his girlfriend, Brandy Gates, at her apartment on Oct. 8, 2003. During the visit, Brandy's ex-boyfriend, Joshua Sadler, along with another man, came by unexpectedly, forced their way into the apartment, and got into a physical altercation with Robert.

Court records show Sadler, a Vienna resident, was arrested a month later, and charged with one count of battery.

In his complaint, Dixon alleges he first appeared at Sadler's pre-trial hearing on Jan. 12, 2004, and later for trial dates on March 1 and April 5, 2004, that were later continued. During each appearance, Dixon maintains that Francisco told him Sadler was going to plead guilty to the charge.

However, in May 2004, Dixon said he received a latter from this father informing him of another trial date scheduled for July 12. Though he made over a dozen telephone calls to Francisco to find out what was going on, Dixon alleges none were ever returned.

One of the last calls he made on June 11 was routed to Diana Williams, the then-victim's advocate for the Prosecutor's Office. Williams told him "I shouldn't have to appear, but would call if she found out otherwise."

Sometime after the trial, Dixon says he found he Francisco asked the charges be dismissed based on his failure to appear. When he made a personal visit to the Office in August 2004, Dixon alleges he spoke with Francisco and Williams who were "quick to apologize, but stumbled through their answers when I asked them questions."

"Everyone admitted they got my messages, but no one would tell me why I wasn't contacted back," Dixon said in his complaint.

In the response he filed to Dixon's complaint on Feb. 10, 2006, Francisco denied " 'misleading [Dixon] in anyway, and always answered his questions to the best of my ability.'" In addition to explaining to him the "overall process and procedures" of what was likely to happen following the pre-trial hearing, Francisco said he told Dixon he "'must attend!'" any scheduled trial date.

Also, Francisco said when he was aware of them, he returned Dixon's phone calls.

On Nov. 30, 2006, then-Chief Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel Lawrence J. Lewis dismissed Dixon's complaint. In his closing letter, Lewis cited a lack of evidence that Francisco committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

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