COLUMBIA, SC — Lexington lawyer and confessed swindler Richard Breibart, who cheated clients out of savings and let others stay in jail after he took their money and did no legal work, is now asking a federal judge for mercy and to let him dodge a prison term.
On Wednesday morning, U.S. Judge Margaret Seymour is scheduled to pass sentence on Breibart, who once enjoyed a reputation for making deals and having access to prosecutors and judges like Seymour.
In an eight-page filing in federal court, Breibart, 63, claims severe physical and mental problems should keep him out of prison.
Also, in the filing, for the first time Breibart’s lawyer Allen Burnside gave an explanation about what Breibart says he did with the millions he stole from clients who trusted him.
His Lexington law firm was a “cash flow monster,” the filing claims, that cost $300,000 a month to pay Breibart, his 12 lawyers, staff and expenses.
But, the filing goes on to say, Breibart’s firm was earning less than $300,000 a month, so he began telling lies and transferring money from the law firm’s trust accounts to the firm’s operating accounts. He had “full intentions of paying the money back,” the filing said.
One of the biggest legal swindlers in recent state history, Breibart cheated perhaps more than 100 clients who trusted him out of substantial sums of money, according to his own admissions and information from lawyers.
No one in the legal profession or elsewhere has made a full and final tally of how much money Breibart stole and how many clients he stole from.
Seymour will also have a chance to ask Breibart – now said to be penniless – to explain in person what he did with the millions he has confessed to stealing from clients who trusted him. Prosecutors have declined to say what they believe Breibart did with the money.
Breibart pleaded guilty to federal mail fraud in August to stealing some $2.5 million from 13 clients. According to an indictment, Breibart frightened clients who trusted him by making up stories that the government was going to seize their savings and that to protect the money, they should transfer the cash to him.
According to an eight-page filing in federal court, Breibart is now in “very poor health” and suffers from a variety of ailments including “coronary artery disease, right eye cataract, loss of physical vision, impingement in his right shoulder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obstructive sleep apnea, hyperlipidemia and hypertension.”
Breibart also has a history of head injuries dating back to 1968 and diagnosed depression since 2002, the filing said.
“It seems clear that Breibart’s history of mental problems, combined with medication and alcohol, could have had a significant effect on his decision making process leading up to this offense,” wrote Breibart’s government-paid lawyer, assistant federal public defender Allen Burnside in the recent filing asking for mercy.
The filing also outlined Breibart’s pre-criminal life, saying he was a mentor at the University of South Carolina law school, has donated a full scholarship to the law school and represented clients in 11 death penalty cases for free, as well as representing “hundreds of other indigent defendants during his 33 years in practice.”
The filing also gave details of Breibart’s once-thriving Lexington law practice, saying he opened an office in 2004 and “built it up very rapidly. By 2012, he had hired almost a dozen associates, and a large number of other staff.”
“Breibart needed to clear well over $100,000 per month just to make payroll on his employees,” the filing said. “In total, the firm needed to clear $300,000 per monthly before Breibart could get paid.”
The filing described his practice as “a cash flow monster.”
“At first, Breibart told lies to get more money into the law firm with full intentions of paying the money back,” the filing said. “After using one person’s money to pay off a debt to another person a few times, the fraud was impossible to sustain. In short, Breibart created a trap for himself.
“When he began making false statements, he fully expected to be able to return the money to his trust account from his operating account,” the filing said.
“Unfortunately, the cases in the pipeline at the firm did not produce enough money fast enough to keep up with the money he had taken from the trust account. The amount he needed to take from the trust account snowballed.
“It all came crashing down as his health failed in May of 2012,” the filing said.
In late 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 has been in a local jail and in a federal prison undergoing mental evaluation since then.
Breibart also cheated dozens of clients by taking their money, promising to represent in cases but doing little or no legal work, according to local 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, who is president of the S.C. Association of Defense Lawyers.
But Cochran stayed in jail six years waiting for a trial until Duncan, who took over the case, pled Cochran guilty to two counts of murder in a Lexington County courtroom last year.
No one has made a final tally of the exact number of Breibart ’s victims.
In August, Breibart voluntarily surrendered his law license. But the S.C. Supreme Court has yet to disbar Breibart. Officially, he is suspended from the practice of law.
In asking Seymour for mercy, Breibart’s lawyer Burnside said in the filing that although the judge’s sentence “should also deter others from criminal conduct...any lawyer inclined to this type of conduct would surely think twice after seeing the devastation brought to Richard Breibart’s life by this misconduct.”
The filing said Breibart “is very ill and has substantial need of medical care. It simply makes no sense to provide that care within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Breibart would be an exceedingly expensive inmate who poses no future threat to society.”
Society would be served if Breibart could get a sentence of time served, followed by supervised release and a year of home confinement, the filing said.