COLUMBIA, SC — Richard Breibart, the once-prominent Lexington lawyer who swindled clients out of millions, stood before a federal judge Wednesday, explaining how he used the money to keep his thriving law firm going.
“It was my pride – I should have just stopped and didn’t do it,” he said. “The plan was simple – settle the big cases and then just go,” he said. “The money simply went.”
Judge Margaret Seymour interrupted: “Where did the money go, Mr. Breibart?”
Breibart: “It went to pay the business.”
Seymour: “All $2.5 million?”
Breibart: “Yes, your honor.”
As this exchange took place, Leland Boozer, a Breibart victim sitting in the hushed federal courtroom, whispered loudly, “The man is a criminal!”
A few minutes later, Seymour sentenced Breibart – one of the highest-profile legal crooks in recent South Carolina history – to five years and three months in prison.
Breibart, 63, in August pleaded guilty to mail fraud before Seymour, admitting that he fleeced 13 clients of $2.5 million.
However, Breibart may have misappropriated millions more in fees he took from clients for proposed legal work he then failed to do, law enforcement officials and lawyers have said. At least 75 complaints are pending before the state Supreme Court Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
No one has tallied up exactly how many people Breibart swindled.
Seymour asked prosecutors if what Breibart said were true about using the stolen money to finance his law practice.
“It does appear that the funds went to support a business that grew too fast,” assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May said, explaining that veteran FBI agent Ron Grosse had combed Breibart’s records and that was his conclusion.
Breibart’s sentence was for one count of federal mail fraud in which he got 13 different victims – all clients or clients’ relatives – to give him some $2.5 million.
To extort money, Breibart made up stories that the government might seize clients’ assets, and that to avoid such a seizure, they needed to give him their money so he could protect it in his firm’s trust accounts.
The victims used the interstate wires or U.S. mail to transfer the money to him – an action which gave the federal government a basis to charge him with a federal crime.
At Wednesday’s hearing, two of Breibart’s many victims described how the bald, rotund man – wearing a red jail jump suit and manacled hand and foot in chains – had robbed their families of dignity and retirement accounts.
“We all have paid dearly for relying on Mr. Breibart for protection. Instead of protecting us,” he preyed on us,” said Jennifer Van Cleave, who told Seymour that her aging in-laws turned over two 401(k) retirement accounts worth $300,000 to Breibart.
Now, with that money gone, the once debt-free in-laws have had to take out a mortgage on their house, and the retired father-in-law has had to go back to work, Van Cleave said.
Boozer, of Saluda County, said two of his children blame him for turning over $700,000 to Breibart – money that has long vanished – and ruining the family’s inheritance.
“All the assets that I own today, that I worked for all my life,” are lost, said Boozer, 73.
Speaking on Breibart’s behalf, his lawyer Allen Burnside said Breibart for many years had been “a highly esteemed lawyer.”
But physical and mental maladies, along with the pressure of growing his law practice, derailed Breibart, Burnside said.
What Breibart did, Burnside said, was “sort of like a Ponzi scheme” where he lied to people to get their money to meet his $300,000 a month payroll and expenses of running a 22-employee law firm.
“He basically set a trap for himself,” Burnside said. Each month there was a new payroll to meet.
Standing before Seymour, Breibart admitted guilt and apologized to his victims and to the state legal profession.
“I stole money – a lot of money – from Mr. Boozer,” Breibart said. “I’m profoundly sorry.”
In a court filing last week, Burnside asked Seymour to show mercy and not give Breibart a prison sentence.
But Wednesday morning, Burnside told Seymour because of the vast betrayal of trust, the multiple victims and large amount of money he stole, Breibart would drop his request to avoid prison.
Breibart has already served about 18 months in jail. So he will likely serve a little more than three years in prison. There is no chance of restitution – he is now penniless.
From 2008 to 2012, Breibart operated an opulently furnished Lexington law practice that had a staff of 22 and a tropical fish aquarium. Each year, he threw lavish Christmas parties that drew hundreds of judges, lawyers and people in the legal and law enforcement professions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday said, “He cleaned a lot of people out of their life savings. They are having to go back to work – people who thought they were set.
“Lawyers, we are in a unique circumstance where people trust us, and he abused that trust. The judge was not pleased.”
Another lawyer found to be taking clients’ money
The S.C. Supreme Court has disbarred Philip Earle Williams, a lawyer in the Anderson County town of Williamston, for taking $344,000 from various clients’ estates.
In disbarring Williams, the Supreme Court said he must pay restitution of $344,000 to nine individuals and entities before he ever applies for a law license again.
Williams must also hire an accountant to do an audit of all his trust, operating and estate accounts for the past six years and identity everyone he misappropriated money from, the Supreme Court said.
Lee Coggiola, who heads the Supreme Court’s disciplinary arm, said the disbarment is independent of any criminal action that the S.C. Attorney General or a local prosecutor might want to bring.
If law officials want to get involved, Coggiola said, the evidence and findings of the disciplinary proceedings are available to them.