Defense attorneys, court clerk plead guilty in ticket-fixing case
Posted January 25, 2010 10:39 a.m. EST
Updated January 26, 2010 10:29 a.m. EST
Smithfield, N.C. — Four Johnston County defense attorneys and a former court clerk pleaded guilty Monday to illegally dismissing traffic cases, including citations for driving while impaired.
Chad Lee and Lee Hatch both pleaded guilty to 10 counts each of felony obstruction of justice and altering official case records and one count of criminal conspiracy. Lee was sentenced to at least four years in prison, while Hatch received a prison sentence of at least 3½ years.
Both men were fined $10,000. They also agreed to surrender their law licenses, cooperate in the state investigation of the ticket-fixing scheme and reimburse clients for the legal fees they collected in the cases – $28,000 from Lee and $14,200 from Hatch.
Vann Sauls pleaded guilty to four counts of misdemeanor obstruction of justice and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, suspended to three years on probation. He also was ordered to pay a $2,500 fine and to perform 100 hours of community service.
Jack McLamb pleaded guilty to three counts of misdemeanor obstruction of justice, was fined $1,000 and was placed on probation for three years. He will have to serve three weekends in the Johnston County jail, however, because of a DWI conviction he had when he was in college.
Both Sauls and McLamb were ordered not to represent any criminal defendants while on probation, and they agreed to take continuing legal education classes before practicing law again. Sauls agreed to reimburse clients $2,350 for the legal fees he collected in the cases, while McLamb has already repaid his clients.
Former deputy court clerk Portia Snead pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor obstruction of justice. She was sentenced to 45 days in jail, suspended to 18 months unsupervised probation.
Snead was the only one of the five to apologize in court for their actions.
Along with former Johnston County Assistant District Attorney Cyndi Jaeger, the four attorneys and Snead were indicted last March on charges that they altered court records and knowingly used illegal dismissal forms to get traffic cases against 36 people dropped.
Seventy dismissal forms with Jaeger's signature on them were filed after she left her job in September 2007, according to the indictments. The dismissal forms were filed for clients of the four defense attorneys. Snead deleted the attorneys' names from at least two cases from the courthouse computer system.
The majority of the defendants involved were clients of Lee, a former Johnston County prosecutor. McLamb's cases were traffic offenses and didn't involve DWI.
State Bureau of Investigation agent Randy Myers testified Monday that Lee, Hatch and Jaeger hatched the scheme when Jaeger put in notice that she would be leaving the Johnston County District Attorney's office.
Hatch told McLamb he would get a few of McLamb's cases dismissed and went to Jaeger's house to take care of it, Myers said. Hatch later had his name removed from computer and paper files for one of his dismissed cases, and the name on the files was switched to that of an attorney who never represented the defendant, Myers said.
Jaeger's attorney was in court Monday, listening to the pleas and the evidence laid out by Myers. It's unclear whether Jaeger, who is charged with three counts of obstruction of justice and 81 counts of failure to perform duty of office, will take her case to trial.
Lee has suffered emotionally since his indictment, said his attorney, Doug Parsons.
"He is struggling for what he's done. He's a broken man, but he's not beaten. He's not through," Parsons said, noting Lee wants to pursue a new career in repairing heating and air conditioning systems.
As he handed down sentences Monday, Superior Court Judge Henry Hight said the episode was a case of "stupidity born of arrogance."
"I don't understand why anybody would think this was a good idea," Hight said.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a statement Monday that such corruption among court officers threatens the integrity of the state's judicial system.
“We expect those who serve as officers of the court to have the highest ethical standards," Cooper said. "When the people we trust to uphold the law break it, our system of justice is threatened. Rooting out this corruption in the courts will help restore the system’s integrity.”
Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle asked the SBI in early 2008 to look into the high rate of dismissed drunken-driving cases in the county. A tracking system installed in October 2007 found several discrepancies in cases that were scheduled for trial but had been dismissed months earlier, she said.
A 2008 investigation by WRAL News found that 46 percent of the DWI charges filed in Johnston County in 2006 were dismissed, compared with 21 percent statewide and 20 percent in neighboring Wake County.
DWI cases require two signed forms before they are dismissed, and dismissals are filed with the court clerk's office.
A 2006 state law requires specific information be listed on dismissal sheets in DWI cases, including the driver's blood-alcohol concentration, any other pending impairment charges and an explanation for the dismissal. A copy of the dismissal is supposed to be sent to the district attorney and the head of the law enforcement agency that brought the charge.
Thirty-two cases that were part of the SBI probe involved alcohol-related charges, primarily DWI. Some of the defendants had alcohol levels in their system that were more than double the 0.08 level at which drivers are considered intoxicated in North Carolina.
Eleven of the defendants had been charged previously with drunken driving or have had subsequent DWI arrests.