For years, longtime Lexington lawyer Richard J. Breibart used his legal creativity and powers of persuasion in state and federal courtrooms to persuade juries his clients were in the right. He worked backrooms with other lawyers to get his clients the best deal.
But in recent years, a federal indictment says, Breibart began using those same powers to tell clients about nonexistent threats to trick them into turning over large sums of money to him so he could help them.
Breibart would inform the clients that the clients were in imminent danger of being arrested and/or of losing their money, a 15-page, 10-county federal indictment issued this week says.
As victims, Breibart selected clients, former clients or their family members who had readily accessible money, the indictment says.
In all, Breibart is alleged to have extorted some $1 million to represent clients in phony cases, according to the indictment. It charges him with mail fraud, extortion and illegally having money wired to his accounts across state lines.
In some cases, Breibart told people they or a relative were in danger of getting sued in civil court or charged with a crime and that he Breibart could solve the clients problem and represent the client for a fee.
Some clients liquidated retirements and asked family members for money to give to Breibart, the indictment says.
There were never any civil actions or criminal investigations regarding the claims that Richard J. Breibart made to the clients, the indictment says.
Breibart then used the fees to pay his personal expenses and expenses for his law firm, the indictment accuses.
Breibart, who is 61 and who has been practicing law in the Midlands since 1979, was arrested Wednesday afternoon and taken before a federal magistrate at the U.S. courthouse in Columbia.
There, in a courthouse where he had appeared numerous times as a prosperous lawyer representing clients, Breibart pleaded not guilty, according to records in the case.
Unable to make $100,000 bond a federal judge set for him, Breibart was taken into custody by federal marshals and spent Wednesday night in jail, according to records. A federal public defender was appointed for him, the record says.
No other attorney in his law firm has been accused of wrongdoing by federal agents.
The indictment was the latest blow to the career of Breibart, who only a few months ago ran one of the highest-profile medium-size law firms in the Midlands with some 12 lawyers doing millions of dollars in legal business yearly in criminal defense, probate, family law and other areas.
Breibarts woes first surfaced in early June, when the S.C. Supreme Court placed him on interim suspension. That category of suspension is placed on a lawyer only when the lawyer is suspected of serious misconduct with clients money or poses a threat to the administration of justice, according to court rules.
The court also appointed Columbia lawyer Mark Barrow to seize and oversee Breibarts bank accounts and client files.
About the same time, Breibarts staff of some two dozen lawyers, paralegals and secretaries were told they wouldnt get their end-of-month paychecks. Breibarts expensively decorated leased offices, along Lexingtons West Main Street, a few blocks from the county courthouse, abruptly closed. Breibarts Internet site, which only last month advertised that clients could contact a lawyer 24 hours a day, disappeared.
Over the summer, two civil lawsuits were filed in the Lexington County Court of Common Pleas alleging Breibart diverted more than $500,000 in clients funds for his own use.
An investigation into alleged issues of misconduct is being conducted by the Supreme Courts Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Such an investigation is only undertaken after allegations have been vetted by investigators, according to Lesley Coggiola, the executive director of the courts Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
This is not something we do lightly, Coggiola said. Possible outcomes include suspension or disbarment.
However, with the federal charges carrying a lengthy prison term, the state Supreme Courts investigation may be the least of Breibarts worries. Each count in the indictment carries up to a 20-year prison sentence.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.