WRAL Investigates

State blocks payments to lawyer in ticket-fixing case

Posted April 21, 2009 1:50 p.m. EDT
Updated April 21, 2009 7:22 p.m. EDT

— State officials have barred one of the lawyers implicated in an alleged ticket-fixing scheme from being paid when appointed to represent clients.

The state Office of Indigent Defense Services sent an to Chad Lee, saying he wouldn't be reimbursed for any case he was appointed to after April 13, because he wouldn't be able to provide "quality representation" with criminal charges hanging over his head. He will still be paid for cases to which he was appointed before that date.

Lee, defense lawyers Lee Hatch, Vann Sauls and Jack McLamb, former Johnston County prosecutor Cyndi Jaeger and former deputy court clerk Portia Snead were indicted last month on charges that they altered court records and knowingly used illegal dismissal forms to get traffic cases against 37 people dropped.

The indictments show that 70 dismissal forms with Jaeger's signature were filed after she left her job in September 2007. The dismissal forms were filed for clients of the four defense attorneys charged. Snead is accused of deleting 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.

District Attorney Susan Doyle asked the State Bureau of Investigation a year ago 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 WRAL News investigation 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.

Thirty-three defendants whose 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.

Lee was court appointed to handle Kelly Hunichen's DWI case last fall, and her mother wants to know why he continues to handle such cases. Susan Hunichen said she doesn't think he should handle any cases until the charges against him are resolved.

"You got people out there with numerous DWIs that have just walked. I think it's wrong," Susan Hunichen said.

Kelly Hunichen was sentenced to two years in prison on her case.

The State Bar typically lets criminal cases play out before taking action on an attorney's law license.

Karl Knudsen, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said lawyers charged with crimes are no different than any other defendant.

"We presume people to be innocent until they've had their day in court to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are guilty," Knudsen said.

Still, he acknowledged that pending criminal charges impair an attorney's credibility.

"Even if technically they are still able to practice, one wonders if they are technically still effective," he said.

Hatch, Sauls and McLamb aren't on the list to take court-appointed cases.