Former Martinsburg attorney Keith Wheaton leaves the Berkeley County Judicial Center March 9 following the first day of hearings in his petition to be readmitted the state Bar. (Photo by Lawrence Smith)
CHARLESTON – A disbarred Berkeley County attorney is hoping to return to the practice of law to not only earn a steady income, but to also pay court-ordered restitution to his former clients.
The state Supreme Court on Oct. 18 is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Keith L. Wheaton's petition for reinstatement to the West Virginia Bar. The Court on Nov. 12, 2004, voted 3-2 to annul Wheaton's license finding that between 1997 and 2002, while as a sole practitioner, he engaged in a pattern of misconduct including "misappropriating funds and unlawfully converting client funds to his own personal use" and "making false statements to disciplinary counsel during investigations of ethical complaints."
Former justices Warren McGraw and Larry V. Starcher were the dissenting votes.
Specifically, the Court found Wheaton wrote $37,900.86 in worthless checks to either clients or expert witnesses. An investigation into the complaint filed against him by Margo Bruce found the delay in Wheaton paying her the $10,000 she received in medical malpractice settlement was due to him using the proceeds to cover the closing costs on his home.
In West Virginia, an annulment is an automatic five-year prohibition from practicing law.
Following his filing for reinstatement on Jan. 20, the Lawyer Disciplinary Board on March 9 and 10 held hearings on it at the Berkeley County Judicial Center in Martinsburg. During most of the first day of hearings, the Board heard from his mother, Audrey, Steven Greenbaum, a fellow WVU College of Law student who previously shared an office with Wheaton, and the Rev. Ronald Paige, all of whom supported his reinstatement, and some of his former clients including Bruce, Dwane Heckman, Jesse McClendon, Pamela Mason, Nancy Christensen, Conley Dunlap, Sharon Puller, Edward Jackson and Efrem Laboke, most of whom spoke against it.
A client who gave a qualified endorsement of Wheaton's reinstatement was Bruce. Though she felt is disbarment was proper, she felt "he should have a second chance."
However, she said she would not recommend him to anyone if he's reinstated.
The latter part of the first, and all of the second day of hearings, the Board heard from Wheaton. In the course of his testimony, Wheaton, 44, who now lives in Cary, N.C., admitted to making "my share of mistakes" was "taking full responsibility for what I did."
Also, Wheaton admitted that legal troubles followed him to North Carolina. That included separate and unrelated convictions for criminal contempt in failing to pay child support, unlawful use of a vehicle and worthless checks.
Wheaton detailed to the Board the circumstances in each case including the disposition of each which resulted in fines, and suspended sentences or probation. Since last October, Wheaton said he's had no run-ins with the law.
According to Wheaton, his continued legal troubles are partially due to his inability to find steady employment. Either his disbarment is an obstacle or a potential employer finds him overqualified for the job.
In an attempt to find steady employment Wheaton started his own diversity consulting business that includes publication of a bi-monthly magazine focusing on issues in the Raleigh-Durham African-American community. However, he said the recession has severely curtailed the demand for his services, and ad revenue for the magazine.
In order to find steady employment, Wheaton says he hopes to again become an attorney. Because they are either national or international in scope, he said many of the legal departments for corporations in the Raleigh-area only require their attorneys be a member in good standing in any state Bar.
Wheaton was unequivocal in saying that he's ruled out "going back into private practice." By working in the legal department of a large firm or university, Wheaton said he could earn sufficient income to not only take care of himself, but also the restitution the Court required he make as a condition of his reinstatement.
Included was a $45,000 judgment Mason received against him in an adversarial proceeding in her bankruptcy, and $13,353.39 to the Board for the cost of his prior disciplinary proceeding.
"As sure as I'm sitting here, if there's an opportunity to repay the people, I will," Wheaton said. "I've done six years of soul-searching on this."
However, the fact that he has failed to make the required restitution may be the biggest obstacle to his reinstatement. In its response filed July 18 to Wheaton's petition, the Board recommended he not be reinstated since his "failure to correct his financial problems indicates that there is a strong likelihood of a repeated course of conduct."
Also, the Board said his "expressing little if any remorse for his previous misconduct" is another reason for its recommendation against reinstatement. The standard for reinstatement should be "not only a demonstration of subsequent appropriate behavior, but also a state of mind in which he comes to terms with his past wrongdoing in such a way that his adherence to high moral standards in the future can be assured."
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 35462