Editor’s Note: This is a news analysis.
After nearly three years of covering the Murdaugh family saga — both professionally and as a private citizen — I am able to say, with some unfortunate authority on the matter, that the best way to keep your brain from curdling out of your ears and onto the floor as you follow the twists and turns of this story is to first accept these basic tenets:
- In the 14th Judicial Circuit — Hampton, Colleton, Allendale, Jasper and Beaufort counties — the world actually does revolve around the Murdaughs and it is preposterous.
- When a community has been trained for generations to stay silent, silence becomes a permanent part of that community’s DNA.
- Complicity is a very contagious disease, and people don’t always realize they have it.
- Absurdity and shamelessness know no bounds.
- There is a monster around every corner.
Lately, I’ve noticed a sixth tenet emerging, and that is “the jig is NEVER up.”
Never ever ever.
When the fiddlers stop playing, these bo’s will simply dance to the sound of their own arrogance and self-preservation.
It was as if Murdaugh and his attorneys, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, were hoping the public had received their own “entry and exit wounds” to their heads and now had full-blown amnesia.
Harpootlian and Griffin told the court that they believed their client was entitled to be released from Richland County Detention Center on a personal recognizance bond, in part, because Murdaugh’s former law firm “and others” had already made 10 of the 12 victims listed in the 48-count indictments “whole.”
In other words, someone else is cleaning up his mess, but our guy deserves the credit for it.
(We’ll talk more about the concept of “making victims whole” in a second because, like I said, absurdity and shamelessness know no bounds and there really are monsters around every corner.)
Another argument the attorneys offered in Murdaugh’s favor: He can’t steal from clients anymore … because he doesn’t have any clients to steal from.
It sounds like a joke, but they really did argue that in front of the judge.
During this hearing, Harpootlian and Griffin sounded less like bulldog attorneys and more like Murdaugh’s high school buddies standing on the front steps of his childhood home, begging Randolph III and Libby I to un-ground their son so he can stumble around the Watermelon Festival with them.
I realize this requires one to believe that Alex Murdaugh’s childhood wasn’t marked by the same astounding permissiveness and complete lack of consequence he apparently afforded to his sons.
Nonetheless, can you imagine what was on Harpootlian and Griffin’s list of rejected arguments to make in front of Judge Alison Lee?
Please please please, your honor, can he go with us?! He’ll go to church without complaining for the rest of the year! He won’t talk back to his mama! He’ll wear his seatbelt! Honest!
Santa came early for me this year when I got to see Dick Harpootlian realize that the smartest man in the room isn’t always the smartest man on the Zoom.
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Murdaugh’s attorneys wanted to give the court the impression that Murdaugh’s alleged crimes are in the past and that everything is fine and taken care of and that’s that, let’s all move on, stop nagging Alex Murdaugh about the missing millions already, he’s just another victim of the Sackler family.
But sources close to the investigations have repeatedly told FITSNews that we should expect to see many more charges coming in the new year.
Regardless, it’s likely that nothing will come easily in these cases— not to law enforcement, not to lawyers and not to the public, which simply wants the reassurance that the same accountability and consequences that applies to them also applies to a Murdaugh.
As the damage continues to be assessed in the Murdaugh Mess — and it becomes even more complicated and exhausting — here’s what we recommend you keep an eye on over the next few months:
The Fallacy of ‘Making Victims Whole’
Harpootlian and Griffin’s news that victims have already been “made whole” sounded great, right? People who have had money stolen from them SHOULD be paid back every cent of what they’re owed.
But, like everything else in the legal world, being “made whole” means different things to different people depending on which side of the pocket they’re on.
I have a feeling we’ll be hearing this phrase a lot in the New Year, particularly about Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick and its handling of Alex’s alleged victims, so let’s take a look at some fun facts and food for thought about legal malpractice in South Carolina, shall we?:
1. According to the South Carolina Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers and law firms facing malpractice claims are not allowed to do or say anything to clients or former clients that attempts to limit or mitigate the lawyer’s or firm’s potential liability.
This means they can’t enter into an agreement with clients or former clients unless the latter are represented by an outside attorney.
It means they can’t attempt to settle a claim or potential claim with an unrepresented client or former client unless the latter have been advised in writing that they should obtain an independent attorney.
It means they cannot offer advice to the client or former client.
It means they cannot attempt to dissuade a client or former client from hiring an outside attorney.
It means they are obligated to give victims enough time to find an independent attorney to represent them.
It means they cannot make threats or insinuations that could be construed as threats.
The rules are there so attorneys facing malpractice claims can’t prey on those with far less legal knowledge. They’re in place so lawyers don’t ever say shady things like, “We can either give you the full amount of what you’re owed now and keep it between us, or you can go ‘get an attorney’ and pay him or her 40 percent of your money. Up to you!”
See, now … that wouldn’t be allowed.
And I don’t think anyone with respect for the rules or a soul would consider that “making someone whole.”
2. The money someone was owed five or 10 or 20 years ago is not the same money they are owed today.
Getting a windfall of unexpected cash right before the holidays would be amazing — especially if it’s an amount that someone never expected to see in their lifetime.
But if a person’s money was stolen from them five, 10 or 20 years ago and they’re only getting it back now … well, they’ve been deprived of the right to invest that money; they’ve potentially accrued debt that they otherwise would’ve been able to avoid had that money been in their possession; and they’ve spent the past whatever years making financial decisions based on not having that money.
And my God! The number of life decisions that have been affected by not having that money is somewhere in the range of infinity. We’re talking choices about medical care, childcare, travel, selling homes, buying homes, car repairs, college educations, marriages, divorces, funerals.
After the first domino falls one hits the other, hits the other, hits the other …
A client whose money was taken from them, frankly, is owed interest on that money and maybe even punitive damages for being subjected to the crime.
I think most of us can agree that a client simply getting the money they were owed at the time of the theft wouldn’t be considered “made whole.”
3. If a lawyer has stolen money from his or her law firm, that firm is now a victim of that lawyer and therefore should be standing in the same line as the other victims in terms of recouping their losses.
When a client receives a settlement, every bit of that settlement belongs to the client.
The client will have immediate bills to pay, such as attorneys fees. With the client’s consent, those fees will be paid out of the whole amount being held for them and the client will receive the balance.
But again, the whole amount belongs to the client.
When a lawyer steals the whole amount — including his own attorneys fees and money that would have been reinvested in the firm — he has stolen from the client AND from the law firm.
This is all just to say that, in paying back victims, a law firm should not, for instance, take 40 percent off the top for “attorneys fees” as a creative way to refill their piggy banks.
If there is a line of victims forming, then the law firm should get in it.
But if they cut the line? That would hardly be considered “making a client whole.”
4. When a crime has occurred, law enforcement should be involved from the inside out.
When a lawyer or law firm attempts to “fix” a malpractice situation on their own and “make the client whole again” by paying them directly and circumventing independent representation, how can the public be sure that the theft is being duly reported to law enforcement?
How can the public be certain that the apparent crime is getting properly reported to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which holds authority over a lawyer’s ability to practice in the state. Many, if not most, lawyers in South Carolina seem to fear the ODC more than they do a potential prison sentence.
Lawyers — and law firms — finding themselves on the wrong side of malpractice claims have an active interest in minimizing the damage to themselves and the firm.
The fewer authoritative and independent eyes on the situation, the bigger the chance that history will repeat itself with other new clients.
Leaving out law enforcement would not be in the spirit of “making a client whole.”
Maybe A Receivership Is Needed … For Murdaugh’s Former Law Firm
Alex Murdaugh has left a historically horrible mess for PMPED to clean up, which is incredibly unfair to the attorneys there who did nothing to deserve this blight that is now upon them.
But the truth is, as good faith actions go, PMPED should not be the ones cleaning this up.
In fact, they should have taken an immediate and giant step away from the situation.
Instead, they now face accusations from former clients of making a bigger mess out of things.
This is a law firm that has been painted into a corner. There are a number of conclusions that people can jump to — did the firm condone it, did they participate, did they have no way of stopping it?
No one needs to “jump” anywhere with this, though. There is a singular truth here and that is, if these crimes occurred, PMPED did not prevent them from happening. And they should have.
In the New Year, we should expect to see more pushback against the firm from law enforcement and from victims, who will likely be more and more emboldened to step forward.
Already lawyers representing victims in the case — Columbia attorney Eric Bland of Bland and Richter and now State Rep. Justin Bamberg of Bamberg Legal LLC — say they’re getting calls every day from former clients of Murdaugh.
So … we know that Murdaugh — and his law firm — are going to end up owing a lot of money to a lot of people.
The judge in the Mallory Beach case saw fit to freeze Alex Murdaugh’s assets, and those of his son Buster, and appoint a receiver this past fall to run a fine-toothed comb through their finances after Buster was seen gambling in Las Vegas, days after his father was jailed.
And, if we’re rewinding to “before times,” when Maggie and Paul were still alive — when the walls were closing in on Murdaugh both professionally (with his apparent embezzlement) and personally (with the growing demands to release his finances to the Beach family attorney in the boat crash case) — I think it’s safe to say he has had very unusual and voluminous money problems for quite some time.
The firm presumably has malpractice insurance but for how long? Also, let’s face it, what insurance company on this green earth would want to take them on as a client moving forward?
Knowing these factors, it’s astounding that law enforcement — or the state itself — hasn’t already shut down operations at the firm or at least frozen its assets as they work to identify victims and suspects.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court appointed a receiver to protect client interests after a Charleston lawyer was arrested (only days ago) on a single Breach of Trust charge. He was accused of stealing $75,000 from one client.
Help me understand the dissonance there.
Murdaugh is accused of stealing $6.2 million so far, and the firm where he was embedded is allowed to go it alone?
Maybe it’s time a judge assigns a receivership to PMPED to oversee finances until the scope of the problem is clear and all potential victims have been identified.
In the meantime, I guess we just have to trust PMPED to do the right thing …
The Resolve of Law Enforcement
Sources tell us that Alex Murdaugh’s alleged crimes against his former law firm and clients could go back as far as the early 2000s. Some have intimated that virtually every case Murdaugh has handled is now suspect, and there are reasons to believe that he (allegedly) routinely overcharged clients for services and (allegedly) shortchanged them on settlements.
These cases are complex.
And the phrase “Pandora’s box” doesn’t even cover it.
Reminder: Murdaugh-related investigation have included obstruction of justice allegations in the 2019 boat crash investigation involving his son Paul; the murders of his wife and son in June; the 2015 death of Stephen Smith; the 2018 death of Gloria Satterfield, the woman who helped raise the Murdaughs’ children, at their Moselle hunting property; the theft of money from his former law firm; the theft of money from former clients; laundering money through a fraudulent bank account and other means; and a strange Labor Day shooting incident, in which Murdaugh confessed to a suicide-for-hire plot.
In the New Year, it is likely that pressure is going to mount on law enforcement to produce answers in Maggie’s and Paul’s murders, but also to stay on top of the growing number of investigations.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) has already invested significant resources into uncovering and adjudicating Murdaugh’s alleged crimes.
At some point, questions of practicality need to be asked: Can law enforcement handle the potentially unprecedented number of cases that might await them? How long can they keep up this pace? And what does this mean for the rest of the state’s non-Murdaugh-related cases? How are they being affected?
So far the state Attorney General’s office and SLED have remained committed and appear to be tackling the cases in batches so as not to overwhelm the system, which is tedious but smart.
As government agencies, though, they are at their best when they know the public is watching.
Which means … keep watching.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
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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