Monday, March 16, 2015

Former Paralegal In Georgia Pleads Guilty To Embezzling $600K From Law Firm's Client Accounts

From the Augusta Chronicle on 3/12/2015:

A paralegal who was accused of stealing almost $600,000 from a law firm and its clients pleaded guilty Tuesday after just two days of a trial in which he represented himself.

Richard Owen faced 253 counts of bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering. From 2007 to 2012, Owen worked for the Victor Hawk law firm. His duties included ensuring medical bills were paid for clients with civil financial settlements, and that clients received all money left over after the firm was paid its fee, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Solari said during proceedings Monday.

Solari said Owen would write out checks in clients’ names, forge their signatures and deposit the checks in his personal bank account. Owen’s signature was later recognized after clients began to voice concerns, Solari said.

 By the time the scheme unravelled, Owen had spent more than $550,000 on collectible coins, Solari said.

Attorney Victor Hawk said after the plea Tuesday that Owen could now face a prison sentence up to 50 years.

Brenda Barrette has been confined to a wheelchair since a 2008 accident. She testified Tuesday that she never saw any of the 26 checks totaling more than $113,000 that Owen deposited. Owen was supposed to help her with the insurance settlement and pay all of the bills accumulated during 13 surgeries and medical treatments after an infection settled into the hip she broke.

“I kept getting the bills,” Barrette testified. Barrette was one of 41 clients whose signatures were allegedly forged on the checks deposited into Owen’s account.

Attorney Melissa Detche­mendy, an associate at the Victor Hawk law firm for 11 years, testified that when Owen left the firm in the summer of 2012, his calls started coming to her. Clients’ medical expenses that were supposed to have been paid – and according to the records Owen created, were paid – were still due.

She and Hawk went to retrieve the firm’s bank records but they had disappeared, Detchemendy testified.

When replacement bank records from 2011 arrived, Detchemendy testified she was responsible for going through them. Dozens of checks made out to clients were in the records and for the first time she saw the back side of the checks with the signature lines. The signatures were in Owen’s handwriting, Detchemendy testified.

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