LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC — Richard J. Breibart, the once-influential Lexington lawyer who Wednesday pleaded guilty in federal court to mail fraud and admitted swindling 13 clients of some $2.5 million, may have victimized some 75 other clients, a federal prosecutor said.
Some 75 former Breibart clients have filed complaints with the S.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel to the effect that they paid Breibart a fee and then he did little or no work, assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday told federal Judge Margaret Seymour.
Holliday made his assertion under questioning by Seymour, who was trying to ascertain the full extent of how many clients Breibart fleeced and how much restitution they might get.
Holliday indicated that the government could identify only a few thousand dollars in assets that would be available for restitution. FBI agent Ron Grosse is the lead investigator in this case.
According to Holliday’s court statements, two sets of people were victimized by Breibart – the ones he criminally swindled out of money, and the ones he took money from to handle cases and then did little work.
Everyone Breibart took money from was a client who trusted him, Holliday said.
Breibart, in a red jail jumpsuit and wearing leg and hand chains, told Seymour he was guilty as charged.
“I’m pleading guilty because I am guilty,” Breibart said, standing next to his lawyer, assistant federal public defender Allen Burnside.
“I have done wrong, and I am guilty,” Breibart repeated.
Although a federal grand jury indicted Breibart last September on 10 felony counts related to cheating 13 clients, prosecutors allowed Breibart to plead guilty to one felony count of mail fraud.
That charge, read aloud in court by prosecutor Jim May, stated that after Breibart represented a client identified only as “H.C.,” Breibart told her that her estranged husband was being investigated by the IRS and that her assets were vulnerable to being confiscated.
Breibart instructed H.C. “to liquidate and transfer all available funds to him to be held in his trust account,” May said. The woman did that.
Actually, May said, there was no investigation and Breibart wound up spending the money on himself and his law firm.
That swindle violated federal mail fraud laws because Breibart used the U.S. mail and an interstate delivery service to have a $500,000 check delivered to him from an Edward Jones account in Missouri.
Although the 13 victims had some $2.5 million in losses among them, prosecutors said Breibart’s condominium and other properties had large liens on them. The best bet for recovery looks like it will come from Breibart’s 6-year-old Mercedes, which has a $6,000 lien on it, Holliday said.
Throughout the 45-minute hearing, Breibart – who as a lawyer had a reputation for settling cases behind the scenes using his relationships with judges, police and prosecutors – stood manacled hand and foot at Burnside’s side, answering questions. Letters on his jumpsuit back read, “LCDC” – Lexington County Detention Center.
For more than 20 years, Breibart was a prominent lawyer in the Midlands. In recent years, he had a large electric billboard on an interstate highway advertising his firm. Each Christmas, he threw parties for area movers and shakers. Briebart stayed connected to Columbia in part as a member of the large Trinity Episcopal Church.
But Wednesday, Judge Seymour asked him the same legally required questions – to determine his fitness to plead guilty – that she asked a Mexican cocaine trafficker who stood several feet from Breibart and pleaded guilty at the same time.
Seymour: “How old are you?”
Breibart: “I am 62. I will be 63 in November.”
Seymour: “How far did you go in school?”
Breibart: “I got a law degree.”
Seymour: “And what do you do?”
Breibart: “I am an attorney.”
Breibart was only to be an attorney a few minutes longer. Later in the hearing, he surrendered his license to practice law in South Carolina state and federal courts, in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Prosecutors said Breibart used much of the money he stole in a Ponzi-like scheme, using it to pay expenses for the 12-lawyer Lexington law office he managed and to pay off settlements owed other clients. Then he defrauded other clients to get money to keep going, prosecutors said.
“He was robbing Peter to pay Paul,” May told Seymour.
Just before the Supreme Court suspended his license in June 2012, Breibart went into a local hospital for emergency care. He was in a coma in intensive care, with a blood clot on the brain, for several weeks and underwent speech and physical therapy when released.
Breibart was indicted in September 2012. This past spring, he underwent a psychiatric evaluation at federal prison facilities in Butner, N.C., to ensure he understood the charges against him.
Seymour on Wednesday asked Breibart about drugs he was taking. He replied he takes medicine daily for blood pressure, seizures, depression, pain, heart issues “and sometimes for acid reflux.”
Seymour warned Breibart that even though the government was recommending a light sentence for him, she might disregard that and give him a stiff sentence.
“You understand that, Mr. Breibart,” Seymour said.
“I understand, your honor,” Breibart replied.
Holliday on Wednesday estimated Breibart would serve “five to six years.” Seymour will sentence Breibart likely sometime in the fall.
Lesley Coggiola, lead lawyer in the S.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, said she could not confirm or deny the existence of complaints against Breibart in her office. The office investigates complaints of misconduct against lawyers and can recommend disciplinary action.
Even though Breibart surrendered his law license, the state Supreme Court still can disbar him — a sanction of expulsion from the ranks of lawyers that imputes far more disgrace to an attorney than the mere surrendering of a license, as Breibart did Wednesday.
Asked how many S.C. lawyers might be swindling clients, Holliday said he thinks it’s rare and as for Breibart, “He’s the one that we’ve caught.”
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.