Lawyer admits computer breach

Lawyer admits computer breach
Lawyer admits computer breach 

By Andrew Clevenger
Staff writer
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 
brief states.

"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 
electronically snooping.

"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.

Suspicions aroused

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 
daily receipts.

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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