Idaho lawyer blames attorneys for felony conviction

Edgar Steele is serving a 50-year term for plot to have his wife and mother-in-law killed.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comDecember 13, 2013 

Murder for Hire

Edgar Steele

North Idaho attorney Edgar Steele, convicted two years ago in an unsuccessful murder-for-hire scheme, has filed a malpractice lawsuit against his trial attorneys.

Steele, 68, claims that Denver attorney Robert McAllister and co-counsel Gary Amendola of Coeur d’Alene failed to effectively represent him in the federal case. He filed his new suit in Ada County 4th District Court as he also pursues an appeal of his conviction — again citing ineffective counsel — before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Steele attorney Wesley Hoyt, who is involved only in Steele’s lawsuit in state court, did not return a call Wednesday seeking information. A different group of attorneys is handling Steele’s federal appeal.

Steele, the self-proclaimed “attorney of the damned,” was convicted of four felony charges after hiring a handyman to use a car bomb to kill his wife and her mother.

The bomb did not explode, and Cyndi Steele has supported her husband, proclaiming his innocence and saying he was targeted for his anti-government views.

Prosecutors said Edgar Steele, a Sagle resident, wanted his wife killed so he could pursue a relationship with a Ukrainian woman he met online. They said he also wanted to benefit from a life insurance policy on his wife. Steele denied the allegations.

He was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison.

Steele claims the case was a federal government conspiracy to silence him. He said audiotapes in which he discussed the plot with the handyman were altered to make him appear guilty.

Steele gained fame from the 2000 civil case in which he defended Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler. Steele lost the case, which led to a $6.3 million jury award that bankrupted Butler and his racist group.

During his criminal trial, Steele asked Chief District Judge B. Lynn Winmill to grant him a new trial based on allegations McAllister and Amendola weren’t providing proper representation. Winmill denied the request and told Steele he could refile it if he was later convicted.

Two months ago, a three-member panel of the 9th Circuit Court ruled that Winmill did nothing wrong in asking Steele to wait to ask for a new trial. On Thursday, Steele asked the panel to reconsider its ruling or for the entire 9th Circuit to review the case.

Most of Steele’s malpractice allegations concern McAllister’s disbarment — one month after Steele’s conviction — and his conviction on fraud charges in Colorado.

McAllister stole more than $1 million from a client whose assets had been frozen by a judge. The client hid money the government hadn’t seized by depositing it with McAllister. The lawyer used the money to buy a house and then created phony documents to make it appear the money was in a savings account.

A former federal prosecutor who was more recently considered one of Denver’s top criminal defense attorneys, McAllister pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit financial fraud and one count of bankruptcy fraud. He was sentenced last year to 6 1/2 years in federal prison.

“McAllister’s representation of Edgar Steele was clouded, distorted and diminished by the conflict of interest arising from his concerns about his own pending disbarment and prosecution,” Hoyt wrote in the court complaint.

Early last year, the Denver Post reported that McAllister admitted to a judge in Idaho that he had provided ineffective counsel to Steele, whose trial took place while McAllister was dealing with his possible disbarment.

“At the time ... I did not recognize the extent to which my mental state had deteriorated” due to his regrets for his actions, the Post quoted McAllister from a letter.

In an affidavit filed after Steele’s conviction, Amendola also said McAllister performed inadequately.

“During the trial, it was clear to me that Mr. McAllister was not well-prepared,” Amendola wrote. “His cross-examination of witnesses called by the United States was disjointed and random and often did not get to the issue that needed to be addressed. His examination of witnesses called by the defense was equally weak.”

Amendola, who declined to comment for this story, is being sued over claims that he failed to bring McAllister’s inadequacies to the court’s attention.

Steele, who claims his attorneys’ negligence led to a “wrongful conviction,” said he was never told McAllister was under investigation or that he was going through a bankruptcy.

“McAllister was ‘asleep at the switch’ and so distracted by his personal problems that he could not function properly and thus was not effective in any way,” Steele wrote in his own affidavit filed in 2011, after his conviction.

The case has been assigned to 4th District Judge Mike Wetherell. No hearings have yet been scheduled.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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