This is a news analysis based on multiple off-the-record interviews, research and the review of records, including sworn testimony.
One month after recusing herself from presiding over matters involving a 2019 boat crash case connected to the powerful Murdaugh family, S.C. fourteenth circuit judge Carmen Mullen knowingly signed off on a highly irregular death settlement connected to Alex Murdaugh. Mullen’s purported signature on this secret settlement allowed Murdaugh to hide his assets from the family of the teenager who was killed in that same crash, according to testimony from Chad Westendorf – an alleged co-conspirator in the scheme to steal $4.3 million from the family of the woman who helped raise Murdaugh’s two sons.
Though he is no longer a party in the case, Westendorf — who is vice-president at Hampton County-based Palmetto State Bank — sat for more than three hours of deposition taken on February 22 by the Satterfield family’s attorneys Eric Bland, Ronnie Richter and Scott Mongillo.
During the deposition, according to a rough draft of a transcript obtained by FITSNews, Westendorf testified under oath about:
- how he became the personal representative for the estate of a woman whose family he never met;
- how Murdaugh — who was a defendant in the wrongful death case — was the mover and shaker behind executing the scheme;
- how Mullen was plainly told by Beaufort attorney Cory Fleming, who represented the Satterfield family at the time, that documents in the case shouldn’t be filed, counter to protocol, because of publicity surrounding Murdaugh from the boat crash;
This bombshell revelation should constitute a major crack in the institutional edifice that has kept South Carolina judges safe from the consequences of their actions.
Unfortunately, the state has long favored a system of judicial appointment that essentially allows politically connected lawyers to choose — and then control — those on the bench.
This selection procedure is vehemently defended by South Carolina’s judicial and political elite. But critics of the corrupt process — including FITSNews — say it invites scandals and ultimately exists to preserve and protect the wealth of key lawyers and their deep-pocketed clients.
Over the years, South Carolina’s judicial reputation has been plagued by whispers of judges who have gotten dubious windfalls from secret business deals with lawyers; about what happens when less connected attorneys have had the audacity to act outside some judges’ pernicious and unspoken social contracts; about judges whose totality of rulings would reflect near perfect allegiance to select law firms, particularly the ones behind their nominations; and about judges who have been circumstantially shackled to a good ol’ boy network that has been known to start recruiting in law school.
“Their tuition was paid for by (fill in the blank),” is a tidbit that has been repeated about a couple of judges, retired or otherwise.
The case of Gloria Satterfield, who died in February 2018 after falling at the Murdaughs’ hunting property, perfectly illustrates how this network has been able to operate so smoothly and brazenly according to the whims of their bottomless greed.
Without a judge willing to forgo protocol, it would have been nearly impossible for $4.3 million to have been stolen from Satterfield’s family. Further, the alleged scheme could not have been successfully carried out without an incurious, unquestioning — albeit apparently unwitting — accomplice.
This is not to scold Westendorf, the alleged accomplice (though he does deserve it), but rather to point out that throughout history, the Murdaughs have surrounded themselves with a population of people who can be silenced through fear, friendship or fickle fortune.
This is because a good ol’ boy network cannot survive gumption or diversity of opinion.
It also cannot survive scrutiny.
Nor an open government.
And it definitely cannot survive sunlight.
So … let’s look at the Satterfield case piece by piece to consider how the dark corners of South Carolina’s judicial system allowed this rot to take hold …
The Personal Representative
Gloria Satterfield’s youngest son was asking Alex Murdaugh too many questions.
This is what prompted Murdaugh to seek help from Chad Westendorf, a personal friend and vice-president of Palmetto State Bank, according to Satterfield attorney Eric Bland.
Palmetto State Bank is a Hampton County-based, multigenerational family-owned institution that has long been aligned with the Murdaugh family and the Murdaughs’ law firm, Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth and Detrick.
Murdaugh convinced Tony Satterfield, who was the personal representative for his mother’s estate, that it would be better for someone with a business background to handle the responsibility. Murdaugh arranged for Westendorf to take over as personal representative of the estate, according to the Satterfield’s 2021 lawsuit.
This maneuver completely removed Tony Satterfield from the process and put Westendorf in the plaintiff’s seat to sue Murdaugh. With Westendorf in place, Fleming was no longer obligated to consult with the Satterfield family.
Westendorf’s deposition paints the picture of a man in over his head with no apparent criminal intent or even knowledge of a crime, who appears to have served as a warm body to Murdaugh’s cold scheme.
The family, as FITSNews first reported last year, never received a dime from their settlement. Not only were they not paid, they were unaware that a settlement had even been awarded.
Westendorf agreed to Mudaugh’s request to serve as personal representative and, according to his testimony, had the permission of the bank’s now former CEO, Russell Laffitte, and Laffitte’s father, who is on the bank’s board.
Westendorf has admitted that he took on the role without asking what a personal representative does nor what responsibilities he would have to the Satterfield family nor what state law might require of him.
He also has admitted that he never once spoke with or met with Tony or his brother, Brian Harriott, and says he was told by Alex and Fleming, who is Alex’s longtime close friend, that everything would be handled.
In summary, Westendorf was paid $30,000 for what amounts to a few signatures, a couple of phone calls and two appearances in front of a judge.
A personal representative’s job includes managing a deceased person’s estate by distributing or selling assets, settling bills and closing accounts.
When a wrongful death settlement is in play, it is the representative’s responsibility to act as plaintiff on behalf of the deceased — and thereby their family.
According to the deposition, Westendorf was ignorant of key responsibilities such as filing the portion of the settlement — $50,000 — that was awarded to Gloria Satterfield with the probate court.
That $50,000 was, according to sources, the sum total of Gloria’s assets, or her estate.
As personal representative, Westendorf was entitled to take a fee for his work. That fee, which is set by South Carolina law, is limited to up to five percent of a person’s estate.
This means Westendorf should have been paid no more than $2,500 for his work. As I said above, he was paid $30,000, which is significantly more than what was statutorily allowed.
When Murdaugh’s alleged scheme began to fall apart this past September, Westendorf returned the money to the family and was removed as a defendant from the lawsuit.
Palmetto State Bank, Westendorf’s employer, also settled with the family.
Judge Carmen Mullen’s Alleged Role
In February 2006, Mullen was first sworn in as a judge in the fourteenth circuit, where three generations of Murdaugh men served as solicitor from 1920 to 2006.
Though she never served as a Circuit Court judge under former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, who retired at the end of 2005, the Murdaugh family’s influence over the circuit’s legal and law enforcement communities continues through this day — in spite of the growing troubles of Randolph Murdaugh’s son Alex.
Over the years, multiple sources in the fourteenth circuit have said that Mullen owes her judgeship to the Murdaugh family, but there are others who dispute the notion.
When it comes to the day-to-day court operations, Mullen is largely regarded as a smart, capable judge with excellent command of her courtroom. She has, however, drawn plenty of criticism and accusations of bias for her handling of cases involving high-profile, political or even vaguely influential defendants.
In 2018, Mullen presided over the plea deal reached in the ProbeGate case involving former S.C. house majority leader Rick Quinn and was roundly criticized for sentencing Quinn — who pleaded guilty to taking part in a legislative “pay-to-play network” — to two years’ probation.
Mullen’s ruling was challenged by first circuit solicitor David Pascoe, who had recommended a year in prison for Quinn and accused Mullen of being biased. Her ruling was upheld by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2020, with the court finding no evidence of such bias.
FITSNews’ founding editor Will Folks wrote extensively about ProbeGate at the time — and called for Mullen’s recusal — saying, “Real accountability for the misdeeds of corrupt elected officials was sorely lacking … and there was absolutely no accountability when it came to the puppet masters pulling their strings.”
Alas, here we are two years later with the Murdaugh case, battling yet another head on South Carolina’s corruption hydra.
Though the full extent of Mullen’s relationship to Alex Murdaugh is unclear — and very subject to rumor — in April 2019, right before Alex’s son Paul was charged with three felony counts of boating under the influence — Mullen was one of two judges who recused themselves from presiding over the case, ostensibly because of her close connection to the family.
The other judge was Perry Buckner, which we will save for another day.
Just a month later, however, Mullen did not find herself similarly conflicted. She did not recuse herself from signing off on Satterfield’s wrongful death lawsuit – and allegedly agreeing to keep it off the books.
According to Westendorf’s testimony and sources who are well familiar with the normal process in a wrongful death lawsuit, Mullen signed off on a case that bore multiple signs of abnormality and potential fraud, did not perform an allocution with Westendorf to verify that the terms of the settlement were copacetic and agreed to Fleming’s request to hold off on filing the settlement documents to stop the public from finding out about it.
Those documents — which had Westendorf’s name as plaintiff and Murdaugh’s name as defendant removed entirely from the caption and showed a disbursement sheet with inconsistencies and figures that, according to the deposition, should’ve prompted questions — were never actually filed.
Westendorf’s deposition is damning, to say the least.
When asked for comment on the deposition, Bland would only verify that what FITSNews had was authentic, saying “I asked the questions and Chad answered them. He never took the Fifth. If you have it, you can read it.”
Here are some key passages from the 120-plus page transcript:
Page 28-29 Lines 25-4 …
Q: So the two settlement hearings that you attended on December 19th, 2018, and then May 13th, 2019, it was just you, Cory and Alex, and then Judge Mullen?
A: And her clerk was at the first one. And then the second was just Judge Mullen, myself and Cory Fleming.
Q: So the only difference was there was a clerk at the first one?
A: And Alex. Alex wasn’t at the second one.
Q: So at the second one, who was there?
A: Cory Fleming, me and Judge Mullen.
Pages 86 Lines 12-19 …
Q: You didn’t consent for that caption to be changed, did you?
A: No, sir.
Q: Nobody asked you?
A: Nobody asked me.
Q: And if you were asked, would you take your name off as a plaintiff on that caption for the estate?
A: No, sir.
Pages 87-88 Lines 7-25
Q: So did you ever find out that the reason they wanted to take the caption off was because Alex didn’t want Mark Tinsley, who was representing Mallory Beach, to find out he was settling a case and paying a lot of money? Did you ever hear that discussion?
A: Repeat your question, please.
Q: Ever hear that discussion that the reason Alex’s name was being taken off that caption was he didn’t want Mark Tinsley, who was suing him, suing his son for the Mallory Beach boating accident, he didn’t want anybody to find out in public record that this kind of money was being paid from his homeowners insurance carrier?
A: The only time I heard that was —
Q: Was in chambers?
A: — in chambers, yes.
Q: At the second settlement conference?
A: Yes. And that’s where —
Q: And Alex wasn’t even there?
A: He wasn’t there.
Q: And that was said to Judge Mullen?
A: From Cory, yes, sir.
Q: And Judge Mullen says, “I understand”?
A: “I understand.”
Q: And Judge Mullen, did you know, had recused herself a month before from the BUI lawsuit — BUI meaning boating under the influence?
Q: I’m going to show you an order that a month before you had your hearing, she recused herself from hearing anything having to do with Alex Murdaugh in Mallory Beach’s death?
A: I did not.
Q: Did she discuss that to you? Did she say to you, “Mr. Westendorf, you’re the PR for this estate. And I need to disclose to you that I have recused myself one month before from having to do anything with Alex Murdaugh in the Mallory Beach death”?
A: No, sir.
Q: OK. So you didn’t see this email where they’re going to change the caption?
A: No, sir.
Pages 91-93 Lines 13-20
Q: So I’m showing you Exhibit Number 20. This is where Judge Mullen, on April — I think it was the 4th — yeah, April 4th — or April 10th. Excuse me. She recused herself. Judge Mullen has recused herself from hearing all matters related to this case and forwarded to Justice for reassignment. So this is the Mallory Beach case versus Gregory Parker and et al. means that there’s other defendants. And you were unaware of that when you went into that hearing?
Q: So when you went into the hearing on April 13th, it was just you, Cory —
A: May 13th.
Q: May 13th. You and Cory?
A: Yes, sir, and Judge Mullen.
Q: And Judge Mullen. And, again, that was not on court record and it was not in a courtroom?
A: No, sir. It was in a room off there.
Q: A room off there. OK. And did it strike you funny when Judge Mullen said, “We’re going to change the caption and take Alex’s name off”?
A: I didn’t know that happened until you just told me.
Q: Well, you said there was a discussion in front of —
A: Not about taking the caption off. Theonly discussion we had was he claimed — or he told Judge Mullen that he would — that Alex’s attorneys would appreciate it or would not want her to file the order at this time. I didn’t know anything about a caption.
A: They asked — they asked not to file because of the —
Q: The Mallory?
A: — the recent boating accident.
Q: The recent boating accident —
Q: — and he was being sued?
A: Well, I didn’t know about being sued, but she just said, “the publicity over the recent boating accident.”
Q: And that’s why she said, “I’m going to sign the order, but don’t file it”?
A: Yes; it wasn’t filed.
Q: She said, “Don’t file it”?
A: Cory asked if it couldn’t — “I’m going to file this later.” I don’t remember the judge saying, “Don’t file it,” but Cory said, “We want to file this later.”
Q: Well, we’re not — it was never filed.
A: I don’t know how it all works. OK.
Q: It was never filed.
Q: So he told her, “We’re not going to file it because of the publicity over the boating accident,” and she said, “OK”?
Q: And then signed the order?
A: She signed something. I cannot say that was the exact thing she signed, but I was in there when she agreed to it.
Page 96 Lines 1-8
Q: Now, you just told me that you were aware that there were discussions between Cory and Judge Mullen where they agreed not to file this. And you got a copy of this letter. Did it strike you as strange, when you’re in the settlement conference and they’re discussing not filing it of record, when the man who sent the money said, “Look, this is to be hold in trust until it’s actually signed and filed, the order.” You never thought of that?
A: I thought he would hold it until it was filed. I mean, my interpretation of — never mind.
Pages 97-99 Lines 21-6
Q: And there’s no docket number, right? So when you walked into the chambers with this petition, which you signed —
A: Yes, sir.
Q: — as Chad Westendorf, you signed the Verification, and you signed as PR?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: When you walked into the chambers, did Judge Mullen not say to Cory Fleming, “Where is the petition that I’m supposed to rule on that’s filed of court record? How is this caption the new caption when the caption that’s filed of record is Chad Westendorf versus the — versus Richard Alex Murdaugh?” Did she not say, “Mr. Fleming, what are you doing with this caption? Where is this? There’s no order”? You understand that if a caption — you probably understand now.
Q: You have a court caption. It’s in the court record. So the Clerk of Court will type up a caption and it will come up. If you’re going to change the caption, a judge has got to approve that so that the Clerk of Court can change the caption. There’s got to be a way to search records and file stuff that it gets filed right.
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Did not Judge Mullen say, “Mr. Fleming, what are you doing bringing this caption in here? I don’t understand. It’s not even filed, this petition.” She didn’t say that?
A: I don’t remember anything even discussing that. Like I said, that’s the first I heard of it, today.
Page 119 Lines 20-24
Q: So I was told that in your statement — you made a similar statement about Judge Mullen, that Judge Mullen knew that the order was not going to be filed.
A: Yes, sir.
Page 120 Lines 9-11
Q: Judge Mullen knew that that order was not going to be filed?
What Happens Now?
In September, when Bland attempted to depose Mullen to gain clarity on how Murdaugh and Fleming — who has not been charged with any crime — were able to execute the alleged scheme, something allegedly stopped him.
Judge Casey Manning, a mentor of Mullen.
Bland won’t comment on why he retreated, but FITSNews’ Folks wrote this in a Feb. 2 opinion piece “Murdaugh Murders Saga: Don’t Forget the Judges”:
Bland sought to depose Mullen in the hopes of getting answers regarding her role in the Satterfied saga, but veteran S.C. circuit court judge Casey Manning allegedly intervened and pressured him to back down. Manning is a mentor to Mullen, who was his former law clerk. In fact, sources familiar with their relationship say he has often referred to the scandal-scarred judge as his “daughter.” Beyond this personal connection, Manning is a member of the S.C. Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCCJC) – a panel which hears complaints filed against South Carolina judges.
Sources familiar with the workings of this panel claim Manning has shielded Mullen from complaints filed against her in the past – although they declined to offer specifics.
One thing is clear, though … the SCCJC doesn’t seem to be doing a whole helluva lot to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct in the Palmetto State. That is one of many issues with South Carolina’s badly broken judicial branch of government that is in desperate need of reform.
According to South Carolina’s Code of Judicial Conduct, judges in the state are “to avoid the appearance of impropriety, and to protect the judiciary through safeguarding its impartiality and the public’s faith in that impartiality.
“The independence and evenhanded administration of justice is vital to the operation of the State’s judicial system, and the judges who preside are duty bound to maintain and enforce the high standards of conduct required to maintain that independence.
“As the preamble to Code of Judicial Conduct provides, judges in this State are ‘highly visible symbol[s] of government under the rule of law’ and the determination of whether disciplinary action is appropriate turns on ‘whether there is a pattern of improper activity and the effect of the improper activity on others or the judicial system.'”
That Mullen thought there was a conflict of interest to remove herself from the Murdaugh case in April 2019, but not in May 2019 — when the execution of a $4.3 million theft was taking place — is baffling.
More baffling is going to be the South Carolina’s Commission on Judicial Conduct’s reaction because if past is prologue, this state is in trouble.
Reached Tuesday, State Rep. Justin Bamberg, who represents several families who say Alex stole from them, said of the allegations against Mullen: “If that’s how things went down, I do think it raises some eyebrows to say the least. I understand loyalty but we still have jobs to do and duties that we have to uphold and people have to be able to trust lawyers, trust judges. That’s the only thing that makes the system work.”
Bamberg said he was certain that the powers that be will be taking a look at what transpired in the Satterfield case.
“The integrity of those professions has to be without question. It’s about trust. And it’s about a sense of duty and that duty has to be upheld by anyone who chooses to join any of those professions.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
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