Columbia attorneys face charges

Aiken attorney will testify in federal conspiracy case

jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 30, 2009 

An Aiken attorney will give crucial testimony against two Columbia attorneys — one a prominent tax lawyer who represents pro golfers — in a federal criminal case involving phantom offshore corporations, doctored records, money laundering and embezzlement of more than $5 million.

Columbia tax and sports attorney John Fitzgerald “Fitz” O’Connor, 63, and his associate, Michael D. Shavo, 38, both of Columbia, pleaded not guilty in federal court Tuesday at their arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Paige Gossett.

O’Connor and Shavo face 17 charges of conspiracy to launder money, commit mail fraud and mislead federal investigators.

If convicted, each man faces more than 270 years in prison and at least $3.75 million in fines.

A major reason they face charges, officials said, is because of another prominent lawyer — Aiken attorney John W. Harte, 63, a former family court judge.

Earlier this month, Harte quietly pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering in federal court before U.S. Judge Margaret Seymour.

At the same time, according to a plea agreement in Harte’s case and other records, Harte agreed to testify against O’Connor and Shavo, thus probably avoiding a possible five-year prison sentence.

Prosecutors are recommending he only get a sentence of one year and one day.

Harte is a former family court judge in Aiken County and is well-known in that part of the state, associates said. His brother is Bob Harte, former solicitor for Aiken, Bamberg and Barnwell counties.

Harte’s attorney, Jack Swerling, said, “John Harte had a outstanding career. He made a mistake, and he has owned up to it, and he has agreed to testify to try to set things right.”

Prosecutors stressed Harte had only a limited role in the alleged scheme and his testimony will be vital in O’Connor’s and Shavo’s cases.

All three lawyers — O’Connor, Shavo and Harte — were caught up in a fourth man’s scheme whereby $5.2 million was stolen from an Aiken vending machine manufacturing company, according to federal prosecutors.

From 1997 to 2007, the fourth man — William J. Trier II, 57 — embezzled some $5.2 million from Crane Co. of Aiken.

Trier, who was sentenced in August to 63 months in federal prison for the embezzlement and related crimes, was a manager in Crane’s shipping department.

In that post, he created fake invoices from two phony freight transport companies and submitted them to Crane for payment. Then, he personally approved payment of the false invoices. The company sent checks to a post office box Trier opened for his phantom companies.

Once Trier started collecting the illegal money, he put it in various property and bank accounts.

In 2007, Trier contacted Harte about his financial situation, according to court records.

Harte introduced Trier to O’Connor and Shavo and had some knowledge of what the two Columbia lawyers were doing to protect Trier’s assets, according to records in Harte’s case.

O’Connor and Shavo then “devised a plan to hide the (Trier’s) stolen money from federal authorities by transferring it amongst numerous shell corporations they set up for Trier,” according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office news release.

According to allegations in the case, Harte had some limited knowledge of what O’Connor and Shavo might do, but he didn’t fully participate in the alleged scheme.

O’Connor has a good reputation as a tax lawyer and is known for representing athletes, said Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who attended USC Law School with O’Connor in the early 1970s.

According to O’Connor’s Internet site, he is “tax adviser to over 22 PGA Tour players.” The site also says his firm specializes in “Asset Protection for High Net Worth Clients.”

Reach Monk at 803-771-8344.

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