Misconduct complaints are being leveled against attorneys involved in Murdaugh investigations | news
COLUMBIA – South Carolina’s legal misconduct watchdog has its hands full with the ongoing Murdaugh saga.
The state’s Disciplinary Office has already filed at least four known complaints against attorneys involved in the web of investigation, civil lawsuits, and criminal charges that ensnared disgraced Hampton County attorney Alex Murdaugh.
These complaints will put the South Carolina Justice, usually slowly and clandestinely investigating attorneys and judges, under the same harsh spotlight that has followed every twist in Murdaugh history since the summer.
At stake are the legal licenses of at least three attorneys who have faced allegations of misconduct, as well as the public’s perception of the seriousness of South Carolina’s prosecution.
“Most disciplinary cases don’t get that kind of attention,” said Robert Wilcox, former dean of the University of South Carolina’s School of Law. “This is an exceptional case in this regard.”
National media and the public have been hooked on almost every development in the Murdaugh case since June. At that point, Alex Murdaugh – a scion of a prominent Hampton County family of lawyers – reported shooting his wife Maggie and son Paul outside the family’s hunting lodge in Colleton County.
In the months since then, Murdaugh has faced a variety of criminal and civil charges that over the past half decade have used a fraudulent bank account to steal millions of dollars owed to his attorney partners and legal clients.
He was also charged with insurance fraud after confessing to orchestrating a botched assisted suicide attempt that was supposed to leave a life insurance payout of $ 10 million for his remaining son.
His lawyers have admitted Murdaugh’s wrongdoing and attributed his actions to a 20 year old opioid addiction that worsened after the murders of his wife and son in June.
At least two complaints have been filed against Murdaugh with the Disciplinary Counsel, a 12-person state agency that works for the state’s Supreme Court and receives more than 1,000 complaints against attorneys each year. One came from his former law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth, Detrick, which accused him of stealing from partners and customers and forced him to resign in early September. Another was filed in October by one of Murdaugh’s closest friends, Bamberg attorney Chris Wilson, who claimed Murdaugh cheated on him out of nearly $ 200,000 on a case they worked together.
The state Supreme Court temporarily suspended Murdaugh’s license to practice law in September at the request of the disciplinary attorney.
At least two other attorneys will face disciplinary investigations related to the Murdaugh cases.
One is Cory Fleming, another of Murdaugh’s closest friends. The Beaufort attorney is charged with helping Murdaugh steal $ 3.4 million in severance payments for wrongful deaths owed to the sons of Gloria Satterfield, Murdaugh’s late housekeeper. That complaint was made by Eric Bland, who sued Fleming and Murdaugh to get the money back for the Satterfield family. The state Supreme Court suspended Fleming’s bar admission in early October.
Bland himself faces a disciplinary complaint. One of Murdaugh’s attorneys, Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, alleged in late November that Bland had improperly used press interviews to denigrate Murdaugh and spoil his chances of an impartial jury in his upcoming civil and criminal trials.
Where to go with complaints
Lawyers in South Carolina have an obligation to report serious misconduct by their peers – from mishandling client funds to breaching confidentiality rules, to lying by their clients or a judge.
These allegations are first investigated by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a confidentiality agency bound by confidentiality rules that prohibit them from discussing their investigations or even confirming their existence.
Your investigations can drag on for months, even years, although, according to information, around 86 percent of the lawsuits against lawyers are dismissed current data. Cases often end quietly, either because the allegations were dropped as unfounded or because court officials ended the case with a private warning or reprimand.
The most serious cases can reach the state Supreme Court, which can expel an attorney or order other sanctions. About a dozen lawyers a year lose their licensesalthough they can apply for reinstatement after five years.
Ginny Jones, a spokeswoman for the Disciplinary Board, cited confidentiality rules when she refused to answer questions about the agency’s Murdaugh-related investigation. However, she said the agency was “armed with the resources necessary to cope with its current case load”.
Several lawyers working on the various Murdaugh cases also declined to discuss the disciplinary process, saying it was inappropriate. They found that the Murdaugh saga – and complaints soaring in all directions – has examined the behavior of lawyers in unprecedented detail.
“It’s a growing hole,” said Joe McCulloch, one of several attorneys who sued Murdaugh.
Complaints roll in
The first known complaint against Murdaugh came from the high-ranking Hampton law firm his great-grandfather founded in 1910. According to a lawsuit filed by law firm PMPED, Murdaugh’s financial deals were investigated after discovering a suspicious check on his desk early September.
The firm’s review revealed “numerous checks” sending settlement funds from his cases to a bank account called “Forge”.
Murdaugh opened the account in 2015 and disguised it to look like it belonged to Forge Consulting, an Atlanta-based finance firm that lawyers often use to handle settlement settlements for their clients. Murdaugh even wrote checks from PMPED accounts to the fraudulent bank account, the company found.
Murdaugh admitted stealing company and client funds when his attorney partners presented him with the checks on Sept. 3, the firm said. The company notified law enforcement officials on September 4th and contacted the Disciplinary Board on September 6th. The state Supreme Court suspended Murdaugh’s license two days later while the Disciplinary Board opened an investigation.
The Disciplinary Board is also investigating allegations that Murdaugh cheated on another lawyer, Chris Wilson, of Bamberg.
Wilson and Murdaugh had been friends for three decades and worked together on numerous cases, Wilson’s attorney Bakari Sellers told The Post and Courier.
But after a case in January 2021, Murdaugh Wilson had his share of legal fees remitted directly to bypass the PMPED law firm and pocket all of the cash, prosecutors claim. When the company found out about the lack of money, Murdaugh tried to repay it. But he could only raise $ 600,000. That meant Wilson had to carry the other $ 192,000 himself.
Wilson filed his complaint in October and has helped both the Disciplinary Board and law enforcement agencies investigate Murdaugh, Sellers said.
“We have a lot of conversations with the ODC,” he said.
Another close friend of Murdaugh’s is struggling with problems of his own. Fleming’s bar license was suspended in October when the Disciplinary Board’s bureau investigated allegations that he helped Murdaugh get pocket money for Fleming’s own clients.
According to the Satterfield family’s lawsuit, Gloria Satterfield died several weeks after a trip in February 2018 and fell in one of Murdaugh’s homes in Colleton County. Murdaugh encouraged the family to bring him wrongful death lawsuits and to appoint Fleming to represent them. Murdaugh didn’t tell them that Fleming was his longtime friend, college roommate, and godfather to his son Paul.
The Satterfields hired Fleming, and he set about securing two settlements worth more than $ 4.3 million from Murdaugh’s insurance carriers. But Fleming never told the Satterfields about that money, and they never got a dime, they claimed in the lawsuit.
Instead, Murdaugh directed Fleming to transfer the $ 3.4 million to the Forge bank account when it was time to pay the family their share.
When the Satterfields’ money landed in the account, Murdaugh ran off, cutting off checks for himself and his creditors, prosecution charges. Murdaugh was arrested in October on two criminal charges related to the alleged plot.
Fleming has settled the lawsuit with the Satterfields and agreed to repay any legal fees he earned from the case. In a statement, Fleming admitted to having made “material mistakes” in the case, but accused Murdaugh of deceiving him.
“When the time came to pay off the settlement funds, Mr. Fleming trusted his close friend and colleague that he was truthful and honorable, only to be misled and deceived in one of the worst ways an attorney could possibly be misled and deceived to become: Alex Murdaugh has Mr. Fleming to steal customer funds, ”the joint statement said.
Then there is the lawsuit against Bland, one of the Satterfields lawyers.
Bland has repeatedly shared his candid opinions about Murdaugh in news articles, podcast interviews and court hearings, calling the suspended attorney a liar and a cheater with no moral compass.
But late last month, one of Murdaugh’s attorneys, Dick Harpootlian, alleged that Bland’s media fireworks were straying outside of the attorneys’ professional rules and affecting Murdaugh’s chances of getting a fair trial. In addition to filing a disciplinary complaint against Bland, Harpootlian asked a judge to silence him with a gag order. The district judge assigned to the case, Bentley Price of Charleston, has yet to schedule a hearing on the motion.
Bland fired back that the press had written hundreds of negative stories about Murdaugh without his help. He countered that Harpootlian had already severely damaged Murdaugh’s chances of an impartial trial by going on television admitting that Murdaugh was addicted to opioids and stole from his own law firm.
Bland said he was working on a lengthy response to Harpootlian’s complaint and plans to quote First Amendment supporters and ethics experts who agree he did nothing wrong.
“This is Harpootlian losing public opinion in court,” said Bland. “Dick has never had an argument that he wouldn’t encounter face to face, and he certainly had a microphone that he wouldn’t speak into.”
Harpootlian declined to comment on this story.