8/24/2012 By Lawrence Smith -Statehouse Bureau|
CHARLESTON - A Ritchie County attorney, who is a candidate for circuit judge, will take a detour from the campaign trial to answer ethics charges that have been filed against him.
The Lawyer Disciplinary Board on April 27 filed a two-count statement of charges against Ira M. Haught.
In the statement, the Board, the prosecutorial arm of the state Supreme Court, accuses Haught, 53, a sole practitioner in Harrisville of committing six violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct when he, in one case, converted money belonging to a client for his personal use, and attempted to deceive investigators who he was working for in another.
A statement of charges acts like an indictment for disciplinary purposes.
Conversion of Funds
The first count stems from a complaint filed by Gerald A. Heister. In his complaint filed May 27, 210, Heister, board chairman for the National Rendezvous and Living History Foundation, alleged Haught received from funds illegally taken from the Foundation by a former employee, Linda Blizard, as payment for Haught's fee to represent in a criminal action the Foundation filed against her.
In response to the complaint, Haught said the issues were resolved when a civil suit Blizard, and her husband, Richard, filed against NRLHF in 2008 was settled on Sept. 10, 2009, with the Blizard's agreeing to repay NRLHF $5,000.
However, in subsequent correspondence with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the arm of the Court that investigates ethics complaints, Haught said while he received the disputed funds from the Blizards, none were used to pay his legal fees.
Heister disputed that by providing ODC a check made payable to Linda Blizard and Haught for $11,402.50. The check was cashed on June 30, 2008 Haught's signatures being one on the back.
Though when he gave a sworn statement to ODC on Dec. 7, 2010, he admitted the signature was his, Haught said he just endorsed it, and gave to the Blizards to cash.
Also, he admitted that after the Blizard's cashed the check, they gave it to him to keep in his office's safe, and he returned it to them when the civil suit was dismissed.
Haught was asked to provide any receipts showing what the Blizards paid him. In a letter dated Dec. 14, 2010, Haught said "he could not find any receipts for the year 2008 to show any amounts paid by Linda Blizard."
According to the statement, a review of Haught's client trust account showed a deposit was made on June 30, 2008 for $11,042.40. A month later the balance was $1,078.60 with "none of the checks paid out from that account in July of 2008 were made payable to Linda Blizard, Richard Blizard or to the NRLHF."
Later, on Sept. 11, 2009, Haught wrote a check for $7,062.50 to Richard Blizard from the account.
Because he converted funds for his personal use, and lied about it, the Board found Haught violated Rules dealing with safekeeping of property, misconduct, specifically "engage[ing] in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation," and Bar admission and disciplinary matters by "knowingly make a false statement of material fact."
Who's my Client?
The second count stems from a complaint filed by Jack and Wanda Wright on July 6, 2010. According to their complaint, the Wrights attempted unsuccessfully for four years to correct a deed to property they purchased in Doddridge County to include oil, gas and mineral rights Haught left out when preparing it.
According to the statement, the previous owner, L.L. Tonkin, contacted Haught in April 2005 about selling the property to David Thompson. However, because Thompson did not provide the money to complete the transfer, the deal fell though.
Later, in July 2006, Tonkin called Haught about selling the property to the Wrights. In a letter dated July 28, Haught said the cost to purchase the property would be $14,282.60.
After he received a check for the amount on Aug. 1, Haught deposited the funds. About two weeks later, he recorded the deed, and closed his file.
In his response to the Wright's complaint, Haught said his involvement in the case began when he was contacted by a pre-paid legal service used by Thompson, who later paid him $600.
Also, Haught said he considered Tonkin, not the Wrights, to be his client, and because Tonkin didn't sign the corrective deed, then the oil, gas and mineral rights were not to be included.
At ODC's request, Haught provided a copy of the file he kept. Entries in it show Haught had correspondence with Thompson, Tonkin and the Wright about the property.
In a letter sent to ODC on Feb. 16, Haught said he "did not have any written representation contracts for L.L. Tonkin, David Thompson or Jack and Wanda Wright."
Because he lied to ODC to avoid detection as to who was his client, the Board also found Haught violated the Rules dealing with misconduct and Bar admission and disciplinary matters.
An evidentiary hearing on the statement of charges before the Board's hearing panel subcommittee is scheduled for Aug. 31 at the W. Kent Carper Justice and Public Safety Complex in Charleston.
Haught is the Republican nominee for judge in the Third Judicial Circuit which includes Ritchie, Doddridge and Pleasants counties. He is seeking to fill the unexpired term of Judge Robert Holland who died in September 2010.
The following December, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed Pleasants County Prosecutor Tim Sweeney, 55, to fill the vacancy. Sweeney is Haught's Democratic opponent in November's general election.