As Palmetto State Bank‘s alleged role in disgraced attorney Alex Murdaugh‘s scheme to steal millions has come to light, the Hampton-based family-owned bank hired an out-of-state public relations firm while multiple sources say the bank still owes victims money and seems reluctant to negotiate.
After the latest round of indictments against Murdaugh revealed that Palmetto State Bank’s and its former CEO Russell Laffitte‘s alleged roles in the schemes, the bank apparently hired Poston Communications, an Orlando-based public relations firm that specializes in crisis communication.
On Tuesday afternoon, Poston Communications Vice President Megan Paquin provided a statement to FITSNews that said Palmetto State Bank will “make every effort to accomplish full restitution for those whose settlement money was diverted to others in transactions processed at the bank.”
There’s a big problem with that statement, however.
That statement directly contradicts what sources have told FITSNews about what’s happening behind the scenes.
Attorney Justin Bamberg who represents the Pinckney family and others from whom Murdaugh allegedly stole, told FITSNews that his clients have not seen such efforts “to accomplish full restitution.”
“We have heard commentary from the bank about paying ‘restitution’ to victims, however, unless ‘restitution’ includes paying the true value on the claims the Pinckney family and others have, then their PR efforts amount to nominal lip service as far as we are concerned,” Bamberg said.
Another source with knowledge of the situation told FITSNews that Palmetto State Bank has not been coming to the negotiating table in good faith.
Palmetto State Bank’s statement said that “when information about the transactions Alex Murdaugh orchestrated came to light, the bank’s Board of Directors took immediate action to begin an investigation and simultaneously severed the employment of former CEO Russell Laffitte.”
However, there’s a big problem with that statement, too.
Laffitte was fired in early January, soon after FITSNews wrote this story about Hakeem Pinckney — a deaf man who became a quadriplegic defendant on a ventilator following a horrific accident in 2009. He died in 2011 after his ventilator was apparently unplugged. Murdaugh was Pinckney’s attorney when they sued a tire company for the car accident in 2010.
According to documents revealed by Bamberg, Murdaugh, his best friend Cory Fleming, and Laffitte participated in a scheme to steal roughly $1 million from the Pinckney family after Hakeem died.
Laffitte was the conservator in the Pinckney case — which means his role was specifically to protect the money and ensure that the clients received their settlements. Laffitte was also the conservator in the case of Hakeem’s cousin Natarsha Thomas, who was injured in the crash with Hakeeem.
In another case that was revealed in the indictments last week, Laffitte was the personal representative for the estate of a woman from which Alex allegedly stole $1.325 million over the course of two years.
See a pattern here?
When FITSNews asked when the board began its investigation related to Murdaugh, Paquin said “September.”
There’s yet another problem there, too.
In September, attorneys Eric Bland and Ronald Richter uncovered documents that showed Murdaugh, Fleming, and Palmetto State Bank employee Chad Westendorf worked in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from the family of Gloria Satterfield, who was Murdaugh’s housekeeper for two decades before she died in an alleged trip-and-fall accident on the same property where Paul and Maggie Murdaugh were murdered in June.
In September, Palmetto State Bank was aware that Westendorf was the personal representative in the Satterfield case. As personal representative, his primary job was to look after the settlement money on behalf of his client.
Westendorf did not fulfill his duties in this case, obviously. Because Satterfield’s family didn’t receive a dime of the $4.3 million settlement. And Westendorf collected a $30,000 fee for his vague duties as PR.
According to Bland, Westendorf didn’t file a single document on the settlement (beyond the initial petition) during his tenure as a personal representative, yet he collected far more than he was due for his role. He stepped down as personal representative weeks after Bland and Richter filed a lawsuit against him and others for the scheme and finally returned the $30,000 to Satterfield’s family.
According to our sources, Westendorf still works at Palmetto State Bank.
When we followed up with Paquin to ask her if Westendorf still works at Palmetto State Bank, she stopped responding.
So why does Westendorf still work there? Even if he had no idea what was going on, as he claimed, one would think he would be considered unfit for the job considering he was legally obligated and had a fiduciary duty to keep track of the $4.3 million that was stolen.
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FITSNews has heard from sources that Palmetto State Bank is in cleanup mode and working to not lose their federal charter.
In her original email, Paquin provided a statement from G. Trenholm Walker, the bank’s attorney, that said Palmetto State Bank didn’t directly benefit from Alex Murdaugh’s alleged thievery, nor did the bank itself take money for fees.
Another problem there: Their CEO did take a $60,000 fee in Hakeem Pinckney’s case. And one of the checks that was allegedly stolen — a check for more than $300,000 — was made directly to Palmetto State Bank.
The bank appears to be attempting to separate itself fully from Laffitte as if he were a rogue employee — when in reality, most of the bank’s board of directors are his own family members.
Laffitte — like Murdaugh — is a member of a powerful Hampton County family that has, for four generations, loomed large in the community. Murdaugh’s great-grandfather founded PMPED; Laffitte’s family took over PSB in the 1950s.
It is well known in Hampton County that the Laffittes and Murdaughs had been close for years.
Why didn’t the bank’s board fully investigate Laffitte in September when Westendorf’s role came to light?
A simple search through online court records in September would have revealed a number of cases in which Laffitte served as a conservator and Alex Murdaugh was the attorney.
And why did it take until January — conveniently around the time attorneys were applying pressure on the bank as details from the cases came to light — when Laffitte was suspended? And why did it take until after Laffitte’s involvement in the scheme was in the press for them to fire him?
If Palmetto State Bank continues on this same path with victims, it will likely be staring down a number of lawsuits, according to our sources.
In the bank’s statement, Walker was sure to let the public know that Palmetto State Bank has “defenses to claims that have been asserted.”
However, Walker also made a similar statement in response to the Satterfield lawsuit in October — before they ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.
The Pinckney case is different from the Satterfield case, but not in the way the bank might hope.
In the Pinckney case, one of the checks that was allegedly stolen was written directly to Palmetto State Bank. That check was for over $300,000, according to documents obtained by FITSNews.
“In this one, the bank cannot say that ‘this is not on us,’” Bamberg previously told FITSNews. “The check went straight to the bank.”
Bamberg said he still hopes that Palmetto State Bank will ultimately do the right thing, like they did in the Satterfield case.
“Some of my clients’ claims could literally wipe the bank out of existence, and we are hopeful that the parties will be able to negotiate a resolution that not only compensates victims, but also preserves the future of PSB so it can show our locals that it cares as much about its community as it lets on,” he said.
Bamberg was clear: Palmetto State Bank is absolutely on the hook for the Pinckney case.
“If Alex Murdaugh wasn’t able to convince the Pinckney family that Russell Laffitte should be the conservator in not one, not two, but three of their cases … without that, Russell would still be the (CEO) of the bank,” Bamberg said. “But they did what they did. And Alex could not have done it without the bank. Period.”
‘How Could The Bank Not Catch It?’
The Island Packet newspaper reported this week that Laffitte has hired two attorneys who claim that “contrary to published reports, Mr. Laffitte has been fully cooperating with authorities.”
Is anyone reporting that Laffitte isn’t cooperating with authorities? He’s been implicated in a crime ring. Our sources have assumed he’s cooperating as he likely doesn’t have a choice. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t face charges.
Bamberg told FITSNews this week that “Russell Laffitte has some explaining to do” when it comes to breach of trust in several cases, including the Pinckney case.
Bamberg said that the heat is turning up on Alex’s co-conspirators.
“Based on what I saw on the indictments and what I’ve seen in the paperwork, I would definitely look behind me before I sat down to make sure that I don’t sit on the hot iron,” Bamberg said of the co-conspirators.
“It seems like to save face, or to keep themselves out of any potential of getting in trouble, everybody just wants to throw Alex under the bus…. but the bus has been on top of Alex…and sooner or later, the wheels of the justice-mobile are just going to mush Alex. And then somebody else is going to be under it. The question is who and when?”
Beyond the legal problems with Laffitte’s involvement in these cases, there are also major moral issues — especially with him wrongfully collecting a $60,000 fee after Hakeem Pinckney died, when he did nothing in his role as a conservator.
“The majority of the people living in the county that is home to the bank have to work two years to make $60,000,” he said. “What makes Russell Laffitte think that his name or whatever warrants him taking $60,000 — especially when you know (the Pinckney family) has to pay for a funeral and medical bills? What were they thinking? And how could the bank not catch it?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to email@example.com.
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