The disbarment hearing was canceled, but FITSNews has the investigation files …
This is a news analysis.
In February, after the South Carolina Supreme Court Office of Disciplinary Counsel notified Alex Murdaugh that he had been formally charged with six counts of professional misconduct — and that the commission would be fast-tracking his disbarment — Murdaugh tried to stop the court from going forward with the proceedings, according to documents obtained by FITSNews.
“There is simply no reason to rush this case,” Murdaugh’s attorney Jim Griffin wrote in a motion Feb. 22, noting that a hearing would interfere with Murdaugh’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in his criminal cases.
Griffin reminded the court that Murdaugh’s license to practice law had already been suspended and that Murdaugh was currently being detained at Richland County Detention Center “unable to post a $7 million bond.”
Even if he were “somehow” to be released from jail, Griffin wrote, Murdaugh would be required to comply with all state laws.
In other words, there would be no danger that Murdaugh would be practicing law and therefore this matter could wait until after his criminal cases were adjudicated.
The ODC disagreed.
The commission’s allegations against Murdaugh are familiar ones. They include his actions in the hours after the boat crash, the creation and use of his fake “Forge” accounts, his attempt to divert nearly $800K in fees away from his law firm, his admitted theft of $4.3 million in the Gloria Satterfield case and the bizarre roadside “suicide for hire” scam from September 2021 in which he admitted to insurance fraud.
Because of these “aggravating factors” in Murdaugh’s case, immediate action was warranted “as a matter of public interest,” the ODC wrote to the court.
Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered Murdaugh to appear in its courtroom at 11 a.m. June 22 for a disbarment hearing.
“We find there is no need to expend additional resources to proceed through the normal disciplinary process,” Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty wrote for the court, noting the “unique” and “egregious” nature of the case.
Before this court appearance could happen, though, Murdaugh — who previously expressed his distaste for being made a spectacle of and getting dragged into a courtroom wearing shackles as if he were going to “attack somebody” — waived his right to the hearing late Tuesday.
However inevitable it may have been, Murdaugh’s disbarment has been met with a great deal of skepticism from those who worry the court is shortcutting one of the most consequential and widespread cases of professional misconduct in the history of South Carolina’s legal and judicial profession.
The court’s argument for expediency is a reasonable one — what further evidence is needed to know that Richard Alexander Murdaugh has no business being a lawyer?
Even he’s admitted it.
But what about the rest?
The investigatory process into allegations of judicial and legal misconduct is a secretive one.
As it stands, there is no information about whether judges and other lawyers — or entire firms — are being investigated in connection with Murdaugh’s case, which only serves to further erode the public’s already fractured ability to place its faith in the state’s court system.
Stopping the Murdaugh case in its tracks also robs the rest of the state’s attorneys from learning where the breakdowns occurred in Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick.
How did it come to pass that Alex Murdaugh could take money so freely from the clients’ trust accounts?
What safeguards were missing? What red flags were ignored? Who else — if anyone — is responsible for this stunning lack of oversight?
The case is an instructive one and deserves a public airing and not only for transparency’s sake.
The more the public knows about the breakdowns, the better they can protect themselves from a legal predator like Murdaugh.
The more attorneys know about how Murdaugh did what he allegedly did, the more they can fortify their own practices from theft and misappropriation.
And the more that’s revealed about who helped Murdaugh break the Rules of Professional Conduct or looked the other way, the more this state’s unscrupulous judges, attorneys, bailiffs, clerks, paralegals and law firm accountants will actually fear this accountability.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let’s look at the charges.
The formal charges against Murdaugh start with the events of Feb. 23, 2019, when his son Paul and five of Paul’s friends set out from the family’s “island home” on the Chechessee River in Beaufort County to an oyster roast.
Early on the morning of Feb. 24, Murdaugh’s boat — which Paul was allegedly driving — plowed into a bridge leading to Parris Island. That crash killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach of Hampton and injured four other passengers.
In the hours after the crash, Alex and his father — former 14th Circuit Solicitor Randolph Murdaugh — drove to the hospital where Paul and his friends had been taken.
The Murdaughs told law enforcement that Paul was represented by counsel and that he would not be cooperating with their investigation.
“While at the hospital, Respondent made attempts to enter the other boat passengers’ rooms,” the commission notes.
That night, Murdaugh approached Paul’s friend Connor Cook — who is identified in the document as “C.C.” — in the hallway of the hospital and advised him “everything would be alright,” according to the commission.
Cook later filed a lawsuit accusing the Murdaughs and law enforcement of trying to set him up to take the fall for the boat crash.
That night at the hospital, Murdaugh “instructed C.C. to ‘keep his mouth shut’ and to inform law enforcement that C.C. did not know who was driving the boat at the time of the accident. Respondent further advised C.C. ‘I got you.’”
Even though Cook knew that Murdaugh was Paul’s father, Murdaugh never told him that he was representing Paul’s legal interests as an attorney that night.
Connor later testified in a deposition related to the boat crash case that he recanted his initial story to law enforcement because he had lied to investigators “only to follow Respondent’s instructions.”
Murdaugh’s decision to give legal advice to Cook — while knowing that Cook’s interests were in conflict with the interests of Paul — and his advisement to Cook that he should keep his mouth shut and lie to law enforcement are violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, according to the commission’s filing.
Not mentioned in the report is that Murdaugh is also accused of setting Cook up with Beaufort attorney Cory Fleming — whose law license was suspended in October 2021 and who is facing almost two dozen charges of conspiring with Murdaugh to steal from clients.
The Cook family was unaware that Fleming was Murdaugh’s best friend and godfather to Murdaugh’s older son Buster.
The commission’s formal allegations against Murdaugh shed a little more light on Murdaugh’s use of the so-called “Forge accounts.”
In 2015 and 2018, Murdaugh opened two separate accounts meant to mimic a legitimate agency lawyers frequently use to manage annuities and structured settlements for clients.
According to the commission, Murdaugh was the only person authorized on those accounts.
Murdaugh allegedly instructed the firm’s accounting staff to issue checks from the trust account into these fake accounts under the guise that he was creating accounts for clients at the real Forge Consulting LLC.
The accounting staff required a client’s approval before issuing these checks — because the money belonged to the client — so Murdaugh “fraudulently altered disbursement sheets to reflect client authorization.”
He is accused of forging clients’ names on the documents and lying to other clients about what signing the form meant.
Murdaugh is also accused of bypassing PMPED’s policy completely and submitting disbursement sheets to the firm’s accounting staff without including client signatures or “any client authorization at all.”
According to footnotes in the commission’s filing, the ODC investigation has found that Murdaugh misappropriated around $2.9 million in client and law firm funds and “negatively impacted approximately 16 clients through the use of the bogus ‘Forge’ bank accounts.”
ODC is “still investigating the exact amount of funds that Respondent misappropriated from PMPED.”
On Sept. 2, 2021, a partner from PMPED confirmed with Forge Consulting LLC that Murdaugh had not set up any settlement accounts for the clients in question.
The next day, members of PMPED say they confronted Murdaugh about their finding. Three weeks later, Murdaugh — through his attorneys — “self-reported this misconduct to ODC and admitted to misappropriating clients’ funds and diverting law firm funds to support his opioid addiction.”
As it turns out, creating fake accounts and depositing client money into them is against the Rules of Professional Conduct — as is “altering disbursement documentation” and diverting client and law firm funds for “his own personal use.”
The commission also looked at Murdaugh’s alleged attempt to divert $792,000 in fees away from his law firm.
Murdaugh was one of three attorneys to represent a couple identified in the documents as “D.F.” and “A.F.”
In January 2021, the court awarded $1.5 million to D.F. and $4 million to the estate of A.F.
Murdaugh and PMPED’s share of the fees for this case was $792,000.
Instead of the fee being directed to the law firm per protocol, Murdaugh asked his co-counsel, Bamberg County attorney Chris Wilson — a close friend and plane-mate of Murdaugh — to make the check out to him.
Murdaugh told Wilson that PMPED was aware of this and had approved the disbursement. According to one of the 15 state grand jury indictments against Murdaugh, Murdaugh also told Wilson that this was because he was “structuring his fees” to keep the money away from the plaintiffs in the boat crash case.
On May 19, 2021 — less than three weeks before Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were murdered — a paralegal from PMPED contacted Chris Wilson’s staff to “inquire about the corresponding disbursement sheet and the missing attorney’s fees.”
A partner for the firm made some more inquiries of Wilson and informed him that the firm was not aware of the arrangement.
In July, Murdaugh wired $600,000 to Wilson and told him to disburse the fees directly to PMPED.
Wilson had to use $192,000 of his own money to cover the rest of the fee, according to the commission.
Lying to Wilson about the disbursement of fees and diverting law firm funds to his personal account for his own use both violated the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The commission filed two misconduct charges against Murdaugh in the Gloria Satterfield case.
Interestingly, the commission throws doubt on the cause of Satterfield’s death, saying she “passed away, allegedly from injuries sustained at Respondent’s home.”
For more than 20 years, Satterfield cared for the Murdaughs’ sons and served as the family’s housekeeper. She died after a “trip-and-fall” at the Murdaugh’s hunting estate.
Murdaugh told Satterfield’s two sons that “he was going to sue himself in a wrongful death action” on their behalf and told Satterfield’s family that he intended to “take care of the boys.”
Instead, as Murdaugh has admitted, he stole the $4.3 million settlement his insurance companies. The boys didn’t get a dime of that.
Murdaugh set Satterfield’s sons up with Fleming, who represented Satterfield’s estate in the case, but never told them “that he and Attorney C.F. shared a close, long-standing friendship that dated back to their college years.”
The commission notes that Murdaugh did this one day after Gloria Satterfield’s funeral and three days after her death.
Murdaugh’s involvement in the case — in which he sometimes acted as plaintiff’s attorney despite being the defendant in the case — is outlined in the filing.
The commission accuses Murdaugh of telling his two insurance carriers that he was liable for Satterfield’s death and says that before the carriers issued their settlement checks, Murdaugh “orchestrated” the resignation of Tony Satterfield as personal representative of Satterfield’s estate.
Murdaugh replaced Tony with Chad Westendorf, Vice President of Palmetto State Bank, without disclosing that Westendorf was a personal acquaintance of his.
Curiously, the commission notes that the settlement proceeds in the Satterfield case were disbursed “without filing signed orders approving the wrongful death settlements.”
This lack of filing, according to previous reporting by FITSNews about Westendorf’s testimony, was done with the knowledge and approval of 14th Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen.
It is unclear what, if anything, the commission’s notation of this might mean in terms of an investigation into Mullen.
The commission also notes that Murdaugh’s attorney never signed the Stipulation of Dismissal that was filed with the court on Oct. 6, 2020, which again raises questions about other potential investigations related to this case.
Murdaugh’s conduct, the commission notes, in soliciting Satterfield’s sons “immediately after the death and funeral of their mother” to hire Fleming violated the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Murdaugh’s misappropriation of their settlement also violated the rules.
The commission also throws doubt onto whether Murdaugh was “shot” as he claimed to have been in September 2021.
Murdaugh is accused of conspiring with Curtis Smith, identified in the filing as a “former client,” to help Murdaugh kill himself for the “explicit purpose” of allowing Buster Murdaugh to cash in on his life insurance policy.
The commission notes that Murdaugh provided Smith with a firearm and told him to shoot him in the head and make it look like a homicide.
“By employing C.S. to murder him, Respondent intended to avoid a suicide exclusion he believed existed as a condition of his life insurance policy.”
Smith “allegedly shot Respondent, but Respondent survived the alleged shooting.”
Murdaugh (through his attorneys) reported this incident to the ODC on Sept. 24, 2021 — more than a week after his corresponding bond hearing — and admitted that he “attempted to commit suicide by arranging for his drug supplier to kill him.”
These actions, the commission notes, violate the Rules of Professional Conduct.
In a phone call to his brother John Marvin Murdaugh on Dec. 17, 2021, Alex Murdaugh talked about the audacity of the $7 million bond he was given by Judge Alison Lee just a few days earlier.
“You got my bond posted yet?” Alex joked.
“Yeah! I’m writing them a check as we speak,” John Marvin said.
“Ain’t that some shit?” Alex said. “F***ing Bernie Madoff got a $10 million bond.”
The two agreed that Alex’s bond was “just crazy.”
Alex went on to list other white collar criminals, the crimes they were accused of and the relatively paltry bonds that were set for them.
He brought up Richard Breitbart.
“The lawyer in Lexington that stole $6.5 million from people?” Alex told his brother. “From their retirement accounts. Not money he made in cases. I’m not saying there’s any big difference, but there’s a little bit of difference.”
This conversation seems to give some insight into how Murdaugh was perhaps able to justify what he allegedly did.
He was winning big settlements for clients. In some cases, making them richer than they could have imagined. What was wrong with taking some of the money that HE won for them? The money HIS last name helped secure? Using the system HIS forefathers helped create? If it were really wrong, would it be this easy? Wouldn’t someone stop him? Anyway, he wasn’t stealing their money! He was stealing the money he made for them!
In whatever way Murdaugh might excuse what he is accused of doing, it’s more important to look at the how of it.
How was he able to do this?
The answer is “the system allowed it.”
The ODC is tasked with assessing what rules Murdaugh broke.
And they’ve done that … but did they do enough?
The charges filed by the commission only cover some of the clients Murdaugh is alleged to have hurt. What about the others? Will the ODC look into those cases too?
How attorneys see themselves — and therefore conduct themselves — in relation to the people they represent in this state is kept in check by two things: their own moral code and, failing that, the enforcement of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The public knows that Murdaugh did not do these things in a vacuum.
He did them in an ecosystem — one that someone like him can happily thrive in.
How does cutting short the investigation in Murdaugh’s case change that ecosystem? How does it fix it?
This is likely not the end for the ODC when it comes to Murdaugh’s spiderweb.
They’re likely investigating judges. They’re likely looking into other attorneys. They’re likely looking into law firms and law firm employees. They might even be investigating court employees.
We have no choice but to put our faith in the Supreme Court — to blindly believe that this is not over and that Murdaugh’s easy surrender isn’t the big orange bow on a big orange box that the Court can now put high on shelf to never be seen again.
We have no choice but to have faith in an institution that has hardly earned it.
In the Murdaugh case, the Court owes the public a detailed account of how it arrived at its decision.
And they owe the state’s attorneys the assurance that their handling of Murdaugh’s case by forgoing the usual process won’t be their new way of doing business.
Liz Farrell is the new executive editor at FITSNews. She was named 2018’s top columnist in the state by South Carolina Press Association and is back after taking a nearly two-year break from corporate journalism to reclaim her soul. Email her at [email protected] or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
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