By Sarah Mansheim
Despite his attorney’s best efforts, Jeffrey Einer Lewis still stands guilty of embezzlement.
Lewis, who was found guilty last month of embezzling from a trust belonging to John K. Dawkins, was in court on Tuesday with his attorney, James Cagle, who asked the court to set aside the jury’s guilty ruling and grant Lewis a new trial.
Greenbrier County Circuit Judge Robert E. Richardson denied Cagle’s request, stating that there was sufficient and appropriate evidence to support Lewis’ embezzlement conviction.
Cagle argued a litany of reasons that Lewis’ trial was inappropriate. First, he said, the indictment was flawed from the beginning, as it accused Lewis of embezzling from Dawkins. However, Cagle said, the ownership of the trust is being argued in civil court, and the money contained may actually belong to charity organizations the Hollowell Foundation and Shriners Hospital. The improper identification of the victim renders the indictment invalid, he said.
Cagle also accused prosecutors of having Dawkins, a spina bifida patient in his 70s, testify only to create sympathy on the part of the jurors.
Further, Cagle argued, prosecutors failed to prove Lewis intended to steal money from the trust; Lewis has always maintained he was borrowing money from the trust he oversaw. Cagle took issue with a series of pre-trial rulings that he said affected the trial’s outcome. He also objected to the inclusion of a finder’s fee in the total amount of $832,000 prosecutors said Lewis embezzled. Lewis testified that he charged the trust a finder’s fee of $137,000 for facilitating the sale of mineral rights on a Pennsylvania property owned by the Dawkins estate.
Cagle also took issue with the court’s refusal to allow attorney and certified public accountant Daniel C. Staggers testify on behalf of Lewis. The defense had expected Staggers to discuss the previous trustee to Dawkins’ trust, Lewisburg attorney Jesse O. Guills. Guills was removed as trustee in 2009 after a complaint was filed in Greenbrier County Circuit Court accusing him of charging the trust “extraordinary, unjustified and unjustifiable fees and expenses.”
Cagle said that he’d hoped to show that Guills, a former state senator and popular local attorney, did the same thing Lewis did, but that Guills wasn’t prosecuted because of his social stature, whereas Lewis, a CPA, did not enjoy such a high status.
When it came time for the state to argue to the court to uphold the conviction, Assistant Prosecutor Keith McMillion argued that all steps taken by the prosecution, and the court, were appropriate – regardless of who owned the money embezzled by Lewis, be it Dawkins, the Hollowell Foundation or Shriners Hospital, the fact remained, he said, that Lewis created a fiduciary relationship by accepting the position of trustee of Dawkins’ trust.
Regarding the finder’s fee, McMillion argued that the cross examination of Lewis bore out the fact that the actions Lewis took to initiate the sale of the mineral rights did not justify the $137,000 he charged the trust for facilitating the transaction.
As far as the state’s motion to prevent Staggers from testifying, McMillion argued that the court was correct in preventing the testimony: including Staggers’ testimony about Guills’ tenure as trustee would only serve to confuse the jury and create a “case within a case.”
When denying Caigle’s motion to dismiss the verdict and grant Lewis a new trial, Richardson stated that the evidence presented in the trial was sufficient for the jury to hand up a conviction of embezzlement. He said state law does not require the identification of the owner of a trust, and, he said the evidence showed that Lewis embezzled funds from the estate.
Richardson also said the court found no error in any of the pre-trial rulings; he agreed with the prosecution that the inclusion of Staggers’ testimony regarding Guills’ years as trustee would muddy the waters and confuse the jury, creating a “case-within-a-case.” Further, he said, Staggers’ testimony was nullified anyway, because Staggers had no knowledge of Lewis’ intent when he removed funds from the Dawkins trust.
Richardson also said that using Guills’ alleged mishandling of the Dawkins trust as a barometer for the state’s decision to investigate Lewis was unreasonable. “The actions of a prior trustee are not relevant” to this case, Richardson said.
Richardson said that evidence pointed to Lewis’ intent to embezzle funds; he specifically noted the lack of documentation of any of the withdrawals Lewis made from the trust. Regarding the inclusion of the finder’s fee in the indictment, Richardson noted that defense attorneys did not object to those funds being included in the indictment.
“I’m not inclined to grant a new trial or set aside the ruling,” Richardson said.
Lewis is scheduled for sentencing and disposition on Tuesday, May 17, at 1 p.m. He faces a possible 10 years in prison.