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Judge Hummel Accused of Intimidating Oil and Gas Counsel | News, Sports, Jobs

NEW MARTINSVILLE – An attorney for an oil and gas company has accused Second Judicial Circuit Judge David Hummel of pointing a gun at her and also at her colleagues in his courtroom during a bench trial earlier this year.

Lauren Varnado, a Texas-based managing partner of the law firm Michelman & Robinson LLP, told The Intelligencer that Hummel had been openly hostile toward her team after they sought to have the judge disqualified from a case in Wetzel County involving oil and natural gas royalty payments.

Varnado said she has provided an affidavit to the West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission, which outlined her claims of Hummel’s alleged unprofessionalism. She said she also has contacted the FBI about the situation.

Varnado said it was investigators with the state’s Judicial Investigation Commission that had originally contacted her about her experience. She said an investigator told her the commission was looking into Hummel in an unrelated manner and, in that process, had a witness in that investigation bring up Varnado’s alleged situation.

“I think (the investigator) could tell I was scared and not saying very much, because he said that they already spoke to Judge Hummel about it, that they’d already obtained surveillance camera footage from the courtroom, and the video showed him pointing an object at me,” Varnado told The Intelligencer on Monday. “They asked Judge Hummel what was happening, he denied that it was a gun. … They went to the officer in the courtroom, asked him what Judge Hummel was pointing at me, and the officer said he was pointing his gun at me.”

Hummel on Monday told The Intelligencer he had no comment on the matter.

Varnado noted in her affidavit that she was afraid to report the matter to local law enforcement

and to the Judicial Investigation Commission, which Varnado said had told her that her statements would not be kept confidential.

***

The case Hummel was appointed to oversee involved EQT Corp. and local residents over royalty payments. Varnado said she and Hummel had gotten off on the wrong foot, starting with her attempt at having him removed from the case. In 2020, Circuit Judge Jeffrey Cramer had voluntarily recused himself from the matter over a potential conflict of interest. That case then went to Hummel, who Varnado believed may have had a similar conflict of interest.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declined to disqualify Hummel, who Varnado said may have relatives who receive oil and gas payments. Afterward, Varnado said Hummel conducted the legal proceedings with an air of open hostility.

“He made no attempt to disguise how mad he was about it,” Varnado said. “He set a status conference a couple months after the hearing on his disqualification, which was July of 2021. … I knew that it was to intimidate, chastise our attempts to (disqualify) him, because there was no reason to set the status conference. He set a status conference on a pending motion – that doesn’t happen – and it was in person, meaning it required me to travel to Wetzel County and appear before him – and it was terrifying.”

Varnado said the status hearing was attended by a member of the Wetzel County Sheriff’s Department, who she said was pacing around and staring at her, causing her to feel intimidated before Hummel began the hearing. Wetzel County Sheriff Mike Koontz declined to comment on the matter when reached Monday.

“He kind of started off with, ‘I’m Judge Hummel, and I don’t have any conflicts, nice try,’” she said. “He turned to the plaintiff’s lawyers and said, ‘This is a bench trial, right?’ and winked at him.

“I then knew it was going to be an ordeal. I was in shock that he even mentioned the disqualification. It was, in my view, wholly inappropriate for a judge to comment on that. … That made me understand what we were dealing with, and that he wasn’t going to hide the fact that he hates me personally, and held it against me personally.”

By the time the matter had gone to trial earlier this year, Varnado said Hummel’s behavior had become significantly worse, devolving into screaming matches and interrupting opening arguments, among other things. In her affidavit, Varnado also states that Hummel berated and ridiculed counsel throughout the trial, calling her “despicable.”

Varnado also claims that Hummel would gesture toward his stenographer to go on and off the record during the trial, one instance of which was prior to Hummel’s alleged brandishing of a handgun.

***

Due to concerns with her legal team’s safety during the trial, Varnado hired a private security contractor to protect her while in the area. According to an affidavit Varnado provided to the Judicial Investigation Commission, Hummel presided over a pretrial hearing with his judicial robe unzipped and his holstered handgun openly displayed. During the trial, Hummel had scheduled a Saturday evidentiary hearing, and allegedly prohibited Varnado’s private security guard from attending.

During the hearing, Hummel allegedly told Varnado that the courtroom security officer, and Hummel personally, would be enough security for her team, according to Varnado’s affidavit. Hummel allegedly said that his guns were bigger than the guns of her security personnel before drawing his holstered weapon, pointing it at the defendant’s table where EQT’s legal team was waiting, and then at the podium where Varnado was stationed. Hummel then allegedly laid his weapon on the desk before deliberately rotating the gun so that the barrel was pointing directly at Varnado, she said.

“By the time that happened, it was shocking, but it wasn’t,” Varnado said. “It was just nonstop abuse every day. You never knew what he was going to set him off; he’d just lose it.”

Hummel said he was unable to provide comment to The Intelligencer. He did, however, comment in a report released late last week by The Daily Beast.

According to that reporting, Hummel first denied anything had taken place in his courtroom, then called the reporter back later to say he had a gun on his person but never brandished it, then called back again to say he did show Varnado and her team a foil packet of blood coagulant from a first aid kit, but not a gun.

“I did pull out a small, red first aid kit. But it was casual. I did show her a foiled packet, and said this is blood coagulant. We have preparations for active shooter situations,” Hummel told The Daily Beast.

The Judicial Investigation Commission, when contacted, would neither confirm nor deny to The Intelligencer that any investigation had been opened into the matter.

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2022-07-18 23:19:27

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