FAIRFIELD, Conn. — A 53-year-old former attorney who had an office Fairfield faces 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to stealing over $824,000 from clients of his law firm, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut said Friday.
John O'Brien waived his right to be indicted and pleaded guilty Thursday in New Haven federal court to one count of wire fraud in the case, said U.S. Attorney Deirdre M. Daly.
According to court documents and statements made in court, from April 2011 and June 2014, O'Brien defrauded four clients by using funds from one client to pay off debts owed in connection with his representation of other clients. He also used their money to pay personal expenses, including the tuition for one of his children at a private high school.
He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, a $1.6 million fine, and $824,747.13 in restitution.
In May 2012, O'Brien accepted $458,343.06 into his Interest on Lawyer Trust Account, or IOLTA, as proceeds of a reverse mortgage taken by a client (“Client 1”) and his client’s wife, both of whom are now deceased.
The funds from the reverse mortgage were intended to pay debts that would keep the client’s family business sustainable. Between June 2012 and February 2014, O’Brien disbursed only $204,000 to the family business. In July 2013, he received an additional $194,636.89 from bank accounts held in the name of his client and one of his client’s children. The funds were supposed to be distributed to the client’s children, but only $104,008 was distributed.
In April 2014, O'Brien accepted $837,250 into his IOLTA as proceeds of a sale of his client’s real property, but only $470,000 of that amount was disbursed to his client’s heirs. The first check written from O'Brien’s IOLTA account upon receipt of the $837,250 was for a debt owed to an unrelated client. In total, O'Brien defrauded Client 1 of $712,221.95.
In May 2011, O'Brien deposited $74,250 from a second client (“Client 2”) into his IOLTA. The money was never disbursed to the client.
In September 2011, O'Brien agreed to represent a terminally ill woman (“Client 3”) for estate planning. Upon her death in January 2013, O'Brien received $137,000 from the estate into his IOLTA. After the deposit, O'Brien paid personal expenses from the IOLTA, including his son’s private school tuition and thousands of dollars to his ex-wife. Only $112,283.20 was distributed to the heirs of O'Brien’s client.
Upon a review of this matter by the Connecticut Bar Statewide Grievance Committee, O'Brien produced fraudulent memos allegedly written to the daughter of his client requesting “release” of various amounts. One of the memos included payment to the family business of Client 1 for a $15,000 lawnmower, which was paid for from Client 3’s estate. Client 3 did not purchase a lawnmower from the family business of Client 1.
O'Brien represented a client (“Client 4”) in the purchase of the client’s deceased mother’s home in Westport. In two payments in August 2013 and February 2014, the client transferred to O'Brien $199,332 to buy the home, which O'Brien was supposed to pay to the fiduciary of the estate to complete the sale. In April 2014, O'Brien finally paid the fiduciary of the estate to complete the sale.
The check to the fiduciary of Client 4’s mother’s estate was the first check written from the defendant’s IOLTA upon receipt of the $837,250 in Client 1’s real estate sale proceeds. Because of the delay in the defendant’s transfer of payment to the fiduciary of the estate, Client 4 incurred $13,558.38 in storage fees for belongings while the property was unavailable for occupancy by Client 4.
While O'Brien was engaged in the above conduct, he made withdrawals of thousands of dollars in cash from his IOLTA. On several occasions, deposits of the same or similar amounts were made into his personal bank account on the same day that the funds were withdrawn from his IOLTA.
O'Brien is scheduled to sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall on March 23. He resigned from the Connecticut bar in June 2015.
This matter was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service and the Connecticut Financial Crimes Task Force, with assistance from investigators of the Connecticut Statewide Bar Grievance Committee. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarala V. Nagala.
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