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[ISN] Lawyer admits computer breach
By Andrew Clevenger
The Charleston Gazette
March 2, 2008
A Charleston lawyer could be suspended from the State Bar after
admitting that he accessed another law firm's computer system because he
suspected his wife was having an affair.
According to a brief filed with the state Supreme Court by the Bar's
Lawyer Disciplinary Board, Michael P. Markins repeatedly accessed e-mail
accounts at Offutt, Fisher and Nord, where his wife, Andrea N. Markins,
worked as an associate.
Between November 2003 and March 2006, Markins logged on to OFN's system
more than 150 times, the brief states. At the time, he worked for the
law firm Huddleston Bolen LLP.
Markins told investigators that he initially read the e-mails of his
wife and another OFN lawyer because he suspected an affair. But he then
began reading other lawyers' e-mails out of "selfish curiosity," the
"Available data from the computer system shows that the OFN account was
accessed one or more times from the Huddleston IP address on 165 of the
243 calendar days immediately prior to March 16, 2006," the brief reads.
"On at least one occasion, an attachment from OFN's chief accountant to
the partners containing confidential financial information about the
firm had been opened and reviewed."
In addition, Markins' firm and OFN were representing clients on
different sides of a mass litigation involving a flood while he was
"Huddleston could not locate any compromised information about the mass
flood litigation [on its computer system]. OFN could not establish that
[Markins] accessed otherwise confidential client information about the
mass flood litigation," the brief states.
However, Markins did not let others check his home computer, according
to the brief.
OFN notified its major clients about the security breach and told them
that the firm did not think that any information had been compromised,
the brief states.
According to his attorney profile on John Fowler PLLC's Web site,
Markins graduated from Marshall University in 1997. Four years later, he
earned his law degree from the West Virginia University College of Law.
"His practice focuses on insurance defense, construction law and
trucking and transportation matters," the profile reads. "Mr. Markins
has also successfully defended matters involving allegations of
professional negligence against lawyers and insurance agents."
His wife, Andrea Nease Markins, went to work for OFN after she graduated
from law school in May 2003, the brief states. When she started going to
more work-related social functions, her husband became suspicious and
started checking her personal e-mail account, according to the brief.
Finding a suggestive joke from an OFN client in her account, Michael
Markins started to monitor her work account also.
"From his wife's e-mail address, [Markins] was able to determine he
could gain access to various OFN e-mail accounts ... by going to the OFN
main Web page, clicking on a link, and typing in an e-mail address and a
person's last name," the brief states.
When asked why he began accessing accounts of other OFN lawyers, Markins
told the subcommittee: "Initially, just one, wanting to find out what
was going on with my wife, and then it expanded from there just out of
curiosity, almost because - I hate to say it, and I don't mean to sound
flippant about it, but just because you can ..."
'Shock and surprise'
Eventually, one of OFN's lawyers began to suspect that her e-mail
account had been improperly accessed. The firm's computer consultant
found that an IP address belonging to the Huddleston firm had been used
to read e-mail on multiple occasions.
While OFN couldn't tell which e-mails Markins read, they could tell
whose accounts he had accessed. And they could tell if he opened an
attachment in an e-mail, including such confidential partnership
documents as a client billing summary and a report listing the firm's
OFN's investigation showed that Markins' forays originated mostly from
IP addresses at his home, office, and on one occasion, a Beckley hotel
where he was staying during a mass flood litigation trial.
When OFN partner D.C. Offutt confronted Andrea Markins about her
husband, she "expressed shock and surprise," according to the brief.
While she acknowledged that her husband had been home on one of the
nights their home account had been used to access OFN's network, she
said she had no idea that he was doing so and denied telling him how to
get into the system.
Offutt put her on administrative leave with pay. Later that day, her
husband's attorney called OFN and said that Andrea Markins had told her
husband two days earlier that the firm was searching for the intruder
and she thought they were close to catching him. Markins had confessed
to his wife that he was the intruder, his attorney said.
OFN later fired Andrea Markins "for being untruthful," the brief states.
Huddleston placed Markins on unpaid administrative leave for two months,
and then fired him. He was later hired by John R. Fowler PLLC at $80,000
a year, $2,000 more than he was making at Huddleston, according to the
In its brief, the Lawyer Disciplinary Board recommended that Markins'
law license be suspended for two years. Also, the panel recommends 12
hours of continuing legal education in the area of ethics before
reinstatement, followed by one year of supervised practice.
"[Markins'] activity was injurious to the OFN and Huddleston firms
through economic and non-economic costs incurred in investigating the
unauthorized access of the OFN e-mail server and the potential loss of
clients," the brief states. "[Markins] also committed a criminal act and
violated the privacy of OFN e-mail account holders by stealing their
online identity, all to satisfy [his] own selfish curiosity."
Reached on Friday, Markins' attorney, Mike Callaghan, said his client
disagrees with the proposed penalty and has filed his own brief with the
state Supreme Court.
"Basically, that's a very harsh punishment for the conduct," Callaghan
said. "The core of our brief [is] that the punishment is excessive for
the acts committed."
Arguments over the appropriate sanctions are scheduled for April 1 in
front of the state Supreme Court.
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