COLUMBIA, SC — Lexington lawyer Richard Breibart, one of the biggest legal swindlers in recent state history, will be sentenced in federal court in Columbia March 5.
The sentencing will be before U.S. Judge Margaret Seymour, who took Breibart’s guilty plea last Aug. 28, according to a filing in U.S. District Court.
Seymour’s sentence is sure to receive statewide attention as lawyers and others look to see if Breibart, who for years fleeced clients of major portions of their savings, will get a light prison sentence or something more substantial.
Breibart has many influential friends in the legal community. For years, he was one of the Midlands’ most prominent attorneys, known for his access to judges and prosecutors. Each Christmas, he threw lavish parties attended by hundreds in the local law enforcement and legal communities.
Last August in federal court, Breibart, 63, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and admitted fleecing 13 clients of some $2.5 million.
At the time, assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday told Seymour that some 75 other Breibart clients have filed complaints with the S.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, alleging they paid Breibart a fee and then he did little or no work on their case.
Everyone who Breibart took money from was a client who trusted him, Holliday said in open court.
According to local defense lawyers, Breibart apparently took money and did little or no work for numerous other clients who didn’t file complaints with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the state legal group that investigates complaints against lawyers.
For example, in 2007, after Roger Cochran of Lexington County killed his ex-girlfriend and her new beau, Breibart accepted a $50,000 fee from Cochran, according to Lexington defense attorney Jack Duncan.
Breibart did little or no work in that case, Duncan told Circuit Judge Robert Hood last August at Cochran’s guilty plea in Lexington County.
Duncan, who took over Cochran’s case, was one of a group of defense lawyers who took over several dozen Breibart cases after Breibart was jailed and represented his ex-clients for little or no fees.
According to legal filings in Breibart’s case, he cheated clients in two ways: he accepted fees and then did little or no work and he fabricated stories to frighten clients into turning over huge sums of money to him.
For example, he would tell clients who trusted him they were being investigated by the IRS and tell them they needed to turn over their savings to him quickly so he could protect those assets during the supposed investigation, according to the indictment.
Breibart’s case became a federal one because, in the cases to which he pleaded guilty, the clients’ money he stole either moved to him by U.S. mail or was in other ways under federal protection.
Although the FBI has investigated Breibart extensively, prosecutors have refused to say how Breibart spent the millions he stole from clients.
The maximum sentence Breibart could get is a $250,000 fine and prison time of up to 20 years, according to a plea agreement in the case.
No one has ever made a final tally of the exact number of Breibart’s victims.
In May 2012, Breibart was the lead attorney in a 12-attorney law firm several blocks from the Lexington County courthouse. On the 5th of every month, the lawyers and some 15 other people in the firm received a paycheck for the previous month’s work.
But late in May 2012, his employees were told they wouldn’t be getting their June 5 checks. The law firm closed suddenly. Three and a half months later, Breibart was indicted on the federal charges.
Breibart is represented by federal public defender lawyers Allen Burnside and John Hare.