CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ordered the annulment of a Logan attorney’s law license, ruling that his egregious violations of the standards of the legal profession warrant the harshest punishment available.
Benjamin F. White convinced A.S. to hire him as counsel after she was charged with one count of felony child neglect in April 2015, according to the March 15 order.
White never discussed or documented his fee arrangement with her, but immediately pursued an intimate relationship with her, taking her on out-of-town trips, providing her with drugs and alcohol—which caused her to violate the terms of her probation—and engaging in sexual relations with her.
A.S. eventually reported White’s conduct and he was removed as her counsel in June 2015. He was charged with violating six separate provisions of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, but failed to respond to the formal statement of charges.
The Hearing Panel Subcommittee of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board recommended his license suspended for five years.
“Upon consideration of Mr. White’s egregious conduct, including the additional aggravating factor that Mr. White disregarded this Court’s order to file a responsive brief, we order that his license be annulled,” wrote Justice Beth Walker in the order.
White was admitted to the West Virginia State Bar in 2005 and was previously reprimanded in 2014.
White’s license was administratively suspended on Nov. 13 for nonpayment of dues and noncompliance with the financial responsibility disclosure requirement, but was reinstated on Feb. 2 after complying with both.
The current proceeding arises from three lawyer ethics complaints filed against White in July 2015—all stemming from allegations of misconduct in relation to his representation of A.S. in a felony criminal matter.
In October 2014, White sent A.S. a friend request on Facebook and communicated with her occasionally about her ongoing divorce. On April 22, 2015, she was charged with one felony count of gross child neglect and was appointed an attorney.
White advised A.S. that the court appointed attorneys were not as good as he was, so she requested that the public defender be removed as counsel and White became her counsel, though there was never a formal written agreement regarding his representation.
On May 28, 2015, A.S.’s home confinement was suspended and she was placed on probation, according to the opinion.
“Immediately afterward, Mr. White insisted that they drive to Charleston to ‘celebrate,’” the opinion states. “ Once in Charleston, Mr. White took A.S. to dinner and purchased alcoholic drinks for her, despite knowing that her consumption of those drinks would violate her probation. On their way home, in the early morning hours of May 29, 2015, Mr. White took her to the ATV resort he owns and they engaged in sexual relations for the first time.”
The following week, White and A.S. traveled together again when she accompanied him to Louisville, Ky., for an ATV convention. White told her not to mention to anyone at the convention that he was her attorney.
“ On the way to Louisville, Mr. White gave A.S. an entire bottle of Xanax,” the opinion states. “In addition to ingesting a number of those pills, she consumed alcohol that was also provided by Mr. White and the two again engaged in sexual relations.”
After that trip, White threatened to put A.S. in jail for one year for leaving her required alternative sentencing program classes early, despite her having permission to do so.
On June 22, 2015, A.S. told her community service manager, known as Ms. Maynard in the document, about White’s behavior.
“Ms. Maynard accompanied A.S. to Judge Thompson’s office, where A.S. requested a new lawyer,” the opinion states. “On June 24, 2015, Mr. White was removed as counsel and Theresa McCune was appointed to represent her. A.S.’s probation was ultimately revoked due to a failed drug screen and she was sentenced to jail as a result.”
A.S. testified that the situation with White was very stressful and embarrassing, and had occurred at a very vulnerable time in her life. She cited her “downfall” as the prescription Xanax White had provided to her.
Three complaints were filed against White and a formal statement of charges was filed on Oct. 26, 2016, and served upon White on Nov. 10, 2016. White failed to respond to the formal charges.
On Sept. 13, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a consent to the recommendations made by the Hearing Panel Subcommittee
“Absent extenuating circumstances, we question whether a respondent attorney who disregards the directives of this Court and altogether fails to advocate for himself—to maintain his career—will adequately advocate for his or her clients,” Walker wrote. “Accordingly, we conclude that a respondent attorney’s violation of this Court’s scheduling order will be deemed an aggravating factor and may give rise to heightened discipline.”
Walker said the court found that White’s egregious violations of the standards of the legal profession, combined with his outright unwillingness to comply with the directives of the court, are sufficient to merit the most severe sanction available and ordered that his license be annulled.
W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 16-1003