COLUMBIA, SC — Federal prosecutors, who originally said they would allow indicted Lexington lawyer Richard J. Breibart to plead guilty in October, have quietly moved his plea date up.
Breibart, 62, will now plead guilty at 10 a.m. Wednesday before U.S. Judge Margaret Seymour in the Matthew Perry federal courthouse in downtown Columbia.
Over the past 15 months, Breibart once a prominent lawyer with a booming firm employing 12 lawyers has received statewide publicity for allegedly bilking numerous clients out of many millions of dollars. No legal or law enforcement organization has released any kind of public list or estimate of the number of clients he allegedly swindled, but it could well be up to 100 or more.
According to a federal indictment issued last September, one of Breibarts methods was to tell clients who trusted him that they were being investigated by the IRS or were otherwise in trouble. He would get them to turn over to him sizable assets so, according to the indictment, he could protect those assets from any impending investigation.
Besides misleading clients about non-existent threats, Breibart also got clients money by getting them to pay a sizeable sum to him to handle a real criminal case, then do little or nothing.
For example, after Roger Cochran of Lexington County killed his ex-girlfriend and her new beau in 2007, Breibart accepted a $50,000 fee from Cochran, according to Lexington attorney Jack Duncan.
Duncan, who was appointed by the court to represent Cochran in 2012 after Breibarts law license was suspended by the S.C. Supreme Court, said Breibart did little or no work on the case.
Duncan made his statement in open court Monday before Circuit Judge Robert Hood during Cochrans guilty plea in Lexington. Breibart also told Cochran that he had worked out a deal so Cochran would only face manslaughter charges, Duncan told Hood.
Hood just shook his head at the news, Duncan said in an interview.
Cochrans aunt, Linda Wright, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that, Breibart did nothing in six years. He took $50,000 and only saw Clif (Cochran) twice in six years. He gave my nephew false hope, saying the charge was going to be manslaughter, and he gave other clients false hope. He hurt a lot of people.
On Monday, now represented by Duncan, Cochran pleaded guilty to two counts of murder. Hood gave him life in prison.
The U.S. Attorneys Office often issues a press release to announce highly newsworthy guilty pleas. But in Breibarts case, no press release has been issued for Breibarts plea Wednesday.
In return for the guilty plea to one of the 10 counts against him in a federal indictment, the government has agreed to drop the other nine charges against him, according to papers on file at the courthouse. The indictment alleged Breibart extorted more than $1 million from clients.
A sentence in the plea agreement also says the government will make a recommendation to Judge Seymour that she give him a lighter sentence than he otherwise might get under federal guidelines.
The maximum sentence Breibart could get Wednesday is a $250,000 fine and prison time of up to 20 years, according to the plea agreement.
The guilty plea agreement says Breibart will make full restitution to each and every identifiable victim who may have been harmed by his scheme or pattern of criminal activity.
Breibart, the plea agreement says, agrees to cooperate fully with the government in identifying all victims.
It remains to be seen whether all victims as set forth in the plea agreement includes all people who paid Breibart upfront fees for criminal defense work and got little in return such as Cochran will be part of the agreement.
Numerous possible victims have also filed claims with a clients compensation fund run by the S.C. Bar Association. But money in that fund is limited, and the Bar has so far declined to make public the number of people allegedly victimized by Breibart.
Although Richard Breibart was indicted on a narrow range of federal charges, he is known to have:
Taken upfront fees from as many two dozen or more clients facing criminal charges and then not advancing their cases. No one has revealed exactly how many people were affected.
Been the cause of numerous former clients filing a claim with the S.C. Bars client compensation fund. The fund only has a $250,000 cap for all the claims. Bar officials have not divulged how many people have filed claims for how much money.
Been the target of two civil lawsuits alleging he tricked clients out of a total of more than $500,000. The suits are ongoing.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.