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Wednesday, 13 January 2010 16:12

Lawyer’s actions aroused suspicion among clients, law enforcement community

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An attorney that forged judges’ signatures was caught thanks to the sharp eyes of a law enforcement officer, a fellow attorney and a court clerk who noticed red flags.

But for at least a year, fraudulent driving privileges provided to clients by Attorney John Lewis remained under the radar. The scam began unraveling last fall, leading to a state investigation and culminating with guilty pleas by Lewis in court this week.

The first sign of the fraud arose after one of the drivers sporting a fake document from Lewis was stopped by a law enforcement officer in Swain County. When asked for his license, the driver pulled out the limited driving privileges he’d gotten from Lewis.

“The officer found it was suspicious in nature just by looking at it,” said Grayson Edwards, a State Bureau of Investigation agent who investigated the case.

The biggest red flag was that Lewis had signed his own name on the line where a clerk of court is supposed to sign. A signature of Judge Richie Holt also appeared on the document. But the officer was skeptical that Judge Holt would have granted limited driving privileges to this particular driver. So the officer called Holt, who confirmed he’d never signed such a document for that person.

The confused driver called Lewis to find out what was going on. Lewis owned up to the fraud, but asked the driver to keep it under wraps. Lewis told the driver to call the clerk of court and say that he’d gotten the document in the mail.

“After (the driver) hung up the phone, he changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to lie for something that he had not done. So he called the Swain County Clerk’s office back and told them where he’d gotten it,” Edwards recounted in court.

In a second case, a Swain County driver bearing one of Lewis’ forged documents was stopped by a police officer, this time outside the region. The driver whipped out his limited driving privileges, but when the officer pulled the driver’s record, it didn’t show up in the computer and the driver got a ticket.

Confused why his limited driving privileges weren’t valid, the driver called Lewis. Lewis asked for the document back without saying why. The driver got suspicious and photocopied it first.

The driver took the photocopy to another attorney to figure out what was going on, all the while hoping he could get the limited driving privileges back. But the attorney instead referred it to the district attorney’s office.

In yet another bizarre incident, Lewis forged the name of Judge Monica Leslie in a custody case terminating parental rights. No sooner had he filed the fraudulent court order with the Jackson County Clerk of Court than he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk wouldn’t give it back, since a signed order submitted as part of the court record can’t be removed from the file. An agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document.

“At one point he even went around the partition in the clerk’s office with a sticky note that said the order was void and put it on the file,” said Reid Taylor, assistant district attorney. “The clerk had some serious issues with Mr. Lewis and the way he was conducting himself over that document and was raising all kind of red flags.”

Lewis grew up in Jackson County and came from a low-income family, according to Lewis’ attorney. He excelled in basketball, playing at Smoky Mountain High School then at Western Carolina University and finally Mars Hill. From Mars Hill, he went to law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island before returning to Jackson County to practice law. Lewis and his wife live in Glenville.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said Lewis’ actions are puzzling for a person who worked so hard to go to law school.

“To come back home where he grew up and throw it all away? For who? People who weren’t entitled to drive?” Bonfoey asked. “Enabling people who shouldn’t be on the road to drive is appalling to all of us. It is appalling to my office, and it is appalling to all of us as attorneys.”

Investigators did not determine what payment if any Lewis got from his clients in exchange for purportedly landing them limited driving privileges, Bonfoey said.

There may be more people out there who think they have a valid document from Lewis. If you are one of those people, contact the sheriff’s office in your county.

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