The attorney waited until he was alone in the room with his client. He laid out the options, explained how much time he or she could spend behind bars. He said he could help — for a price.
According to court documents, that’s how former Garfield County public defender John E. Hummel, 54, did business with at least seven clients in 2008 and 2009. He demanded money, firearms, electronics, anything of value in exchange for legal representation, the documents state.
The only problem?
Hummel was already being paid by taxpayers to represent those clients, all of whom were ruled indigent by the court — too poor to afford a private attorney.
On Monday, the attorney will appear in a Panguitch courtroom to stand trial for seven felony counts of theft or attempted theft by extortion. The charges could add to 65 years in prison.
Prosecutors will attempt to convince a jury that Hummel used his power and influence as an attorney to con clients.
These accusations, experts said, are extremely unusual. Most attorneys who spoke to The Tribune said they had never heard of a case like it.
But they also saidthis rare instance nonetheless highlights systemic problems with Utah’s public defense system, which experts say asks attorneys to do too much for too little.
Also, unless lawyers are criminally charged or publicly reprimanded, there is no way to track this kind of corruption. Clients have little to no guidance in reporting these practices. Nor do government officials have to report public defenders they suspect of corruption to judges, or anyone else.
"Criminal defense lawyers are overwhelmingly well-intentioned and honest," said Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But like any other walk of life, there are going to be exceptions."
29 different ways » There is no formal process for reporting bad public defenders.
The body that regulates lawyers in Utah is called the Utah State Bar. It investigates and prosecutes instances of lawyer misconduct, but it can only investigate the claims it knows about.
Some accusations may never make it past the county government.
Two years ago, a rumor swept through the Washington County courthouse: an attorney was charging his indigent client for services he said were not covered by his public defender contract.
When news reached county officials, they acted quickly, removed all future clients from the attorney’s calender and stopped giving him new cases, said Washington County government spokesman Dean Cox.
They also terminated his contract.
Although charging a client is a direct violation of the public defender agreement and would allow the county to fire an attorney with only a week’s notice, the county instead chose to terminate the defender’s contract "without cause," in which they gave him 90 days notice and never explained the reason why.
"It was the fastest and most efficient way of doing it without launching a major investigation," Cox said. "It probably would have come to the same conclusion."
Indigent clients are often unfamiliar with the legal process. They may not understand their rights or who they can turn to if they feel violated by their lawyer.
Cox said Washington County did not make any report to the State Bar. Counties are under no obligation to report ethical issues to any outside body. And, because each county handles their public defense system independently, they each have slightly different methods.Next Page >
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.