Story by Lawrence Smith
The West Virginia Record
Looking more like what may be submitted for a case in circuit or the Supreme Court, the five residents with a pending case in Monongalia Magistrate Court against an alleged Virginia private investigator hope the 23 exhibits they recently submitted will convince the magistrate to keep the case alive.
On Oct. 31, a hearing was held in Morgantown in front of Magistrate Jennifer Wilson on a motion to dismiss a small-claim suit filed by five West Virginia residents against Jon Gigliotti. The residents – Patricia Lemley, Robert Hart, Elizabeth Crawford, Gil Vanderkraats and Sue Holland – allege that Gigliotti portrayed himself as a private investigator working on behalf of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the American Center for Law and Justice, and could aid in their respective cases of alleged judicial corruption.
According to court records, the residents met with Gigliotti, who lives in Lyndhurst, Va., in early 1997, and paid him a “retainer” of $2,650. However, they later discovered that Gigliotti’s private investigator’s license expired in January 1997, and his ties to CBN – a television ministry founded by Pat Robertson, and located in Virginia Beach – had been severed at least a year prior to that.
In both her motion and oral arguments, Gigliotti’s attorney RaeLynn Regula said the case should be dismissed for two reasons. First, that the residents failed to state what it is Gigliotti exactly did not do for them, and second, the issues raised were previously litigated in suits Lemley and Hart filed in Monongalia Circuit, and U.S. District Court, respectively.
In essence, Regula said the present case is an attempt by the residents to “forum shop.”
Prior to the conclusion of the hearing, and after they made their arguments on why the case should proceed, the residents asked if they could submit additional documentation to bolster their arguments against dismissal. Wilson agreed, and asked that the documentation be submitted by Nov. 7.
Court records show the residents submitted 23 separate documents. Among them, include a letter written by a high-level ACLJ official in 1997 asking Gigliotti to refund at least one of the resident’s money, and a retainer agreement between that same official, and Lemley concerning reopening the case of an alleged arson fire which destroyed her beauty salon in the late 1980s.
ACLJ asks Gigliotti to return money
The letter the residents submitted was from John G. Stepanovich, ACLJ’s deputy chief counsel, addressed to Gigliotti dated May 12, 1997. Accompanying that letter is a copy of one Stepanovich wrote to Crawford the same day concerning a telephone conversation they had two days prior about the status of Gigliotti’s investigation.
In his letter to Crawford, Stepanovich acknowledges Gigliotti “recently submitted to the American Center for Law and Justice information he gathered on your behalf.” However, he added, “After our review it became clear that your matters fell outside the scope of our legal charter.”
He apologized for any “confusion,” and referred her to Ted Amshoff in Louisville, Ky., and Jim Coster in Pittsburgh as attorneys who could possibly lend assistance in her case.
Also, Stepanovich said in his letter, “I am instructing Mr. Gigliotti to retrieve the information that he submitted on your behalf.”
In his letter to Gigliotti, Stepanovich chastised him for speaking on ACLJ’s behalf.
“You understand that while you were there you had no authority to represent the American Center for Law and Justice,” Stepanovich wrote. “You further had no authority to make any statements that the ACLJ would agree to represent any of those individuals.”
In concluding his letter, Stepanovich said Crawford, and another woman, Sheryl Hobbs “were concerned about the money that they paid you for investigative services.” He instructed Gigliotti to provide the information he “accumulated on their behalf” to an attorney they designate, or refund their money.
“I would advise you to contact them and refund their money if that is what they want,” Stepanovich wrote.
On May 30, Stepanovich wrote nearly an identical letter to Hart as he did to Crawford. In his letter, Stepanovich acknowledge the information Gigliotti submitted on Hart’s behalf, but a review of it found that it, too, fell outside ACLJ’s charter.
Like with Crawford, Stepanovich referred Hart to Amshoff and Coster. Also, he concluded his letter saying he would be “instructing Mr. Gigliotti to retrieve the information that he submitted on your behalf.”
Stepanovich agrees to take arson case
Despite telling Crawford and Hart that their cases fell outside ACLJ’s charter, Stepanovich seemed not to have a problem in accepting Lemley’s case. Though it is unclear if he would be assisting on behalf of ACLJ or on his own, Stepanovich, along with Mark N. Troobnick, entered into a retainer agreement with Lemley regarding her arson case.
According to the agreement dated April 24, 1997, and written on the letterhead of Troobnick’s office in Berkeley Springs, he and Stepanovich would take Lemley’s case on a contingency fee arrangement. The terms of the agreement stated that Lemley would pay them 40 percent of total amount of a favorable jury award, or, in the event of pre-trial settlement, 33 1/3 percent.
Also, the agreement stipulated that Lemley agreed to pay “the costs and expenses in this case.” Including in those expenses are experts, consultants and investigators “to aid in the preparation of presentation of your case …”
The agreement states “when returned signed by you [Lemley] on behalf of your organization [Victims R Us] to my office, will constitute the written fee agreement with my office.” Lemley signed the agreement April 30, 1997.
In an addendum Lemley added to the agreement, she asked to be consulted prior to the hiring of any expert witnesses or consultants. Also, she noted that an investigator had already been hired.
“The investigator has already been hired to work with John G. Stepanovich and do all the process serving, and other research that needs to be done,” Lemley said. “His name is Jon Gigliotti and his fees are being paid now.”
In a prior interview with The Record, Lemley said that after informing Troobnick and Stepanovich that the residents hired Gigliotti to work on their cases, that communication between them began to break down. After it became clear that Troobnick and Stepanovich were not going to honor their agreement to assist in her arson case, she filed her lawsuit against them, the ACLJ and Gigliotti in 2000.
Upon conclusion of the hearing, Wilson said she would make her ruling on the motion to dismiss sometime after Nov. 15, and inform both sides of her decision via U.S. Mail.
Lawrence Smith is a staff writer for The West Virginia Record. This article was reprinted with permission of the Record.