Ritchie judicial candidate previously cited for conflicts of interest

By Lawrence Smith | Nov 2, 2012

CHARLESTON – Prior to the current ethical violations leveled against him, records show several times in his nearly 30-year career, a Ritchie County attorney, and candidate for circuit judge, was warned about conflicts of interest in cases he handled.

In April, the Lawyer Disciplinary Board, the prosecutorial arm of the state Supreme Court, filed a six-count statement of charges against Ira M. Haught. The statement, which acts like an indictment for disciplinary purposes, accuses Haught, a sole practitioner in Harrisville, of, among other things, deceiving investigators as to whose interest he was representing in a property transfer in Doddridge County.

A review of Haught’s disciplinary file show that at least five times the Board cautioned Haught about the conflicts of interest in his cases. Two of those came very early in his practice, and centered on legal matters involving his father.

In fact, the first one resulted in formal disciplinary action, and a warning that has gone unheeded.

Three between 2001 and 2007

Most recently, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the Court’s investigative arm, opened a complaint against Haught on Sept. 6, 2007 at the request of Keith White, a St. Marys attorney. According to the complaint, Haught represented Allen R. Lacaria and Megan Smith in a real estate purchase contract that involved Earl and Lurri Craddock.

Apparently, Earl Craddock spoke with Haught about the contract before retaining White. Though he said a review of his appointment book and time records disputed that, Haught withdrew as Lacaria’s and Smith’s attorney after the matter came up in the course of the contract discussions.

In closing the complaint on Jan. 31, 2008, Chief Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel Rachael L. Fletcher Cipoletti expressed concern about Haught “lack[ing] an appropriate and sufficient mechanism for conducting checks for conflicts of interest in his office.” Provided he could give proof within the next 30 days he instituted a way to check conflicts of interest, Cipoletti said ODC would not refer his case to the Board.

Two months prior to the complaint in the Lacaria-Smith-Craddock real estate case, William E. Edwards alleged Haught created a conflict of interest in taking his ex-wife, Janet, as a client in their divorce despite first speaking with him. According to his complaint, William first spoke with Haught about representing him in the divorce the previous January, but didn’t have enough money to retain him.

After he obtained the necessary funds, Haught told William to return, and he would file his divorce. Before he could do that, William says Janet retained Haught.

Despite having no notes or recollection of ever speaking with William, Haught, in response to the complaint, filed a motion to withdraw as Janet’s attorney. In closing the complaint on Aug. 22, 2008, Cipoletti reminded Haught “of his obligation to perform appropriate conflict check procedures when accepting new clients” and warned him “that failure to do so in the future may result in appropriate disciplinary action.”

More than six years earlier, John W. Martin of Waverly accused Haught of failing to timely disclose a potential conflict of interest in defending him in a property damage lawsuit filed in 2000 by Drilco Oil Products in Wood Circuit Court. When Drilco refused to cap a well on property he purchased, Martin removed the well’s pumping unit, and placed a barricade around the well.

After Judge George Hill ruled in Drilco’s favor following a one-day bench trial on Oct. 25, 2001, Martin the following December filed his complaint against Haught. In it, he alleged Haught neglected the case, failed to return phone calls and omitted telling him he received royalty payments from a leasehold interest Drilco had in Gilmer County.

In response to Martin’s complaint, Haught admitted to receiving the royalty payments from Drilco’s Gilmer County interest. However, he added that he completely explained that to Martin prior to the trial, and it did not effect his representation of him.

Though it did determine Haught receiving royalties from Drilco while fighting against the company in court a conflict of interest, the Board’s investigative panel said it was “limited in nature” and Martin was not harmed by it. However, in closing the complaint on March 27, 2003, Allan N. Karlin, the panel’s chairman, warned Haught about potential conflicts, and encouraged him to obtain waivers in writing to avoid misunderstandings.

Two involving dad

A decade earlier, Haught, while serving as the county prosecutor, apologized for his behavior in a case involving his father, Warren.

According to the complaint, Haught on Aug. 29, 1991, moved to dismiss a speeding ticket against Warren in Ritchie Magistrate Court. When the magistrate’s assistant refused to accept his motion without specifying the reason why, Haught wrote on the form “because I want to.”

Later, he said then-Judge Sam White said he would not appoint special prosecutors to cases in magistrate court, and the magistrates informed him if a prosecutor failed to appear for a hearing on misdemeanor a case, they would not hesitate to dismiss it. Along with his apology, Haught assured the Board should a potential conflict arise, he would disqualify himself from the case, and seek the appointment of a special prosecutor.

Two years after he was admitted to the Bar, Jeannette E. Kincaid of Wheeling filed a complaint against Haught accusing him of helping his brother, Barry, to prepare “deeds and other transfers to defraud her and her creditor rights against the brother’s property.” According to the complaint, Kincaid obtained a judgment against Barry on June 17, 1983.

In response to Kincaid’s complaint, Haught admitted he made the transfers, but at the request of Warren. The transfers, he said, were conducted to “‘clean up some loose ends remaining from the [business] merger,’ of the family businesses.”

According to the complaint, a subsequent lawsuit was filed by one of the banks that held the note to some of the property. Because of an apparent conflict he had by representing Warren while serving as a bank trustee, Haught was named as a co-defendant.

In closing the complaint on Nov. 4, 1988, the Board determined there was insufficient evidence to prove Haught committed fraud by transferring the property. However, because he committed a technical conflict of interest in helping his father do it while serving as the bank’s trustee, the Board admonished him for his actions, and warned him “to avoid future violations of ethical rules.”

A hearing on the statement was tentatively scheduled for Oct. 31. However, it was continued on a motion by Haught so his new attorney could become familiar with the case.

Previously, Haught was represented by former Wood County Prosecutor Ginny A. Conley. Now, he is represented by Ancil Ramey, a former Court Clerk, now with Steptoe and Johnson.

In Tuesday’s general election, Haught, 53, a Republican, is seeking to fill the unexpired term of Judge Robert Holland, who died two years ago. Former Pleasants County Prosecutor Tim Sweeney, 55, who was appointed to fill the vacancy by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, is his Democratic opponent.

The Third Judicial Circuit includes Pleasants, Ritchie and Doddridge counties.

A hearing has been rescheduled for Dec. 5 and 6 at ODC's office in Kanawha City.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 12-0528

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