CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A Huntington lawyer faces a disciplinary charge of bringing frivolous lawsuits against the state Division of Corrections, soliciting business from inmates at Lakin Correction Center who had claimed to have been sexually abused by prison personnel and offering inmates a cut of settlement monies for referring other inmates to him.
The state's Lawyer Disciplinary Board filed charges against Kerry Nessel on May 13, but the alleged violations go back to 2010.
Lori Nohe, warden of the Lakin Correction Center, wrote a letter to the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel in March 2010 indicating Nessel was soliciting business from inmates and offering them money to refer other prisoners to his practice.
Nohe provided a statement from inmate Sandy Fisher, who described a meeting with Nessel where he requested the names of inmates who might be willing to discuss possible sex assault cases with him.
Nessel had received Fisher's name from another inmate, she told authorities, and offered her a cut of other inmates' settlement monies as a finder's fee, which he would deposit in an account she could access following her release from prison.
In a sworn statement before the Office of Disciplinary Counsel on April 4, 2011, Nessel denied allegations he solicited information or business from Fisher, or offered her any money as a "finder's fee."
He said he stopped representing Fisher because he found out she was lying.
Nessel presented the board with a letter from Fisher, dated Aug. 29, 2009, in which she requested Nessel's representation.
He admitted he met with Fisher to discuss claims she'd been sexually assaulted while housed at the Western Regional Jail, but denied soliciting the woman's business. Nessel said he believed Fisher was upset at him because he did not take her case.
He admitted to sending small amounts of money to clients - $25 to $35 - but only "out of the kindness of (his) heart" and not as payment for referrals.
Nessel acknowledged the gifts were in violation of the board's Rules of Professional Conduct, however, and promised he would not repeat the mistake.
Then, in June 2011, lawyer Lou Ann S. Cyrus, of Charleston's Shuman, McCuskey and Slicer law firm, provided the board with transcripts of telephone calls between Nessel and another inmate, Jillia Mayes.
Nessel was Mayes' lawyer during her time at Lakin. In one of the calls, Mayes told her mother Nessel had agreed to send her money, but because he had previously gotten in trouble for giving money to clients, the money would have to go through her mother.
Mayes repeated the plan to her father during the same call. She also talked about receiving money from Nessel for referring other inmates to his practice.
Robin Ramey, an investigator at Lakin, testified that she had heard from inmates and staff that Nessel offered money for referrals for pending sexual assault lawsuits against the prison. Nessel allegedly told one inmate she could "tell her story and get paid for it," or she would be deposed in another case and would have to tell the story anyway or be charged with perjury
Courtney Roush, a supervisor at Lakin, said in a sworn statement that Nessel often would meet with 15 or more inmates per day.
Nessel responded to the accusations, saying Mayes contacted him requesting an "advance" on her settlement.
In a second sworn statement in September 2012, Nessel again denied sending money to inmates.
He said he also instructed his assistant Michael Ferguson not to send money. On three occasions in late 2010, an inmate at Lakin received money orders for $50 signed by "M. Ferguson."
Nessel also denied soliciting inmate clients, but said his existing clients would recommend him to other inmates.