COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Richard Breibart, once a high-profile attorney in South Carolina who handled a number of civil and criminal cases in a decades-long career, was sentenced Wednesday to serve more than five years in federal prison for stealing more than $2 million from his clients.
Breibart, 63, also was ordered to pay back $2.4 million to more than a dozen of his clients. Prosecutors have said that the Lexington attorney scared clients into thinking they could be facing possible investigations or Internal Revenue Service penalties, urging them put hundreds of thousands of dollars into his law firm's trust account.
On the urging of the trusted attorney, who had more than 30 years' experience, Breibart's clients liquidated investment and retirement accounts, giving him the proceeds for safekeeping.
The attorney promised he would handle matters confidentially and keep them out of public records, according to authorities. But the problems were made up, and clients were never under any risk, according to prosecutors. Instead, Breibart used the money to fund his expanding law firm, which had overhead of hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, prosecutors said.
Standing before the judge in a red jail uniform, handcuffs and shackles, Breibart explained he knew he had done wrong but said he had good intentions for his firm's employees.
"I'm profoundly sorry about what happened here," Breibart said, emotional at times. "I should have just stopped and closed it, but I had to pay everybody the best."
One of Breibart's former clients, Leland Boozer, said his trust in the attorney had cost his family $700,000 and resulted in frayed relationships with his children.
"There are no words that do justice to this loss," Boozer said. "It's an invasion and destruction of what's been most important to me: my character."
Another woman, Jennifer Van Cleave, said Breibart put $300,000 of her family's money into a trust account while he was representing her husband.
"We have all paid dearly for hiring Mr. Breibart to protect us," said Van Cleave, who said her husband's parents have had to hire new lawyers and even return to work because of the financial loss. "Instead of protecting us, he preyed on us."
Breibart's scheme was exposed in 2012, when the attorney was hospitalized several times, had brain surgery and was found unresponsive at his home. In the months leading up to his arrest, defense attorneys said, Breibart was taking a number of prescription medications and also drank alcohol heavily.
Breibart has been in jail for a year and a half, spending five months undergoing evaluation at a federal prison hospital. During that time, according to his attorney, Breibart was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Pointing out that the health issues don't excuse his client's behavior, defense attorney Allen Burnside said he felt Breibart's medical issues and substance abuse played a role in his poor decisions. Both Breibart and his attorney stressed that the theft was only to support the law firm's viability, something federal prosecutors said was also supported by their investigation.
At its peak, Breibart's firm employed more than 20 people and specialized in criminal work. It closed shortly before his arrest.
"I can't help but think this had a lot to do with him making the decisions that he made," Burnside said. "He was desperate to keep this going, and that's what led him to basically start defrauding people."
Breibart pleaded guilty to mail fraud in August, and the 63-month sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour was the maximum recommended jail term under federal guidelines. Seymour agreed to recommend that Breibart be considered for an intensive prison drug treatment program and be incarcerated at a federal institution in South Carolina so that his daughter can visit.
"It is clear that the defendant abused his positions as a prominent attorney to convince the victims that he had knowledge of pending criminal or civil investigations," Seymour said. "The defendant reflects poorly on the judicial system."
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