While the ongoing federal trial of disgraced South Carolina banker Russell Laffitte – and the seismic revelations it produced regarding disbarred attorney/ accused killer Alex Murdaugh – dominated headlines this week, another judicial drama tied to this erstwhile Lowcountry dynasty was unfolding in relative obscurity.
And while this judicial scandal tied to the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga isn’t quite as juicy as the one enveloping embattled S.C. circuit court judge Carmen Mullen – it nonetheless goes to core concerns regarding the handling of this case by the Palmetto State’s cozy, corrupt judicial branch.
It also involves a judge who is no stranger to controversy … and one who could exert significant influence over Murdaugh’s upcoming double homicide case.
This week, Charleston S.C. circuit court judge Bentley Price – who has come under fire for his excessive judicial leniency toward violent criminals – issued a controversial order tied to a lawsuit filed against Murdaugh last fall by his former law firm, f.k.a. Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED).
Dated this Wednesday (November 9, 2022), the order could potentially allow PMPED to jump in line ahead of other defendants in cases against Murdaugh – while simultaneously allowing Price to determine the damages to which the firm was entitled without holding any public hearings.
The original PMPED lawsuit (.pdf) accused Murdaugh of stealing from the firm by creating a “fictious (sic) entity” which provided “no services and … no products for sale,” an entity which he used exclusively to convert monies owed to the firm and its clients into personal funds.
Is that accurate? According to prosecutors, yes. In fact, Murdaugh is currently facing 90 individual counts of alleged criminal activity involving “schemes to defraud victims” of nearly $9 million at the state level. Laffitte – who claims he was just a “pawn” in the operation – is facing both federal and state charges related to his alleged role.
The federal trial is not going well for Laffitte, incidentally … at all.
RUSSELL LAFFITTE TRIAL COVERAGE
(Via: Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)
DAY 1: REVELATIONS ON FIRST DAY OF TRIAL
DAY 1: LAFFITTE TRIAL EXPOSING MURDAUGH MOTIVE FOR MURDER
DAY 2: PROSECUTORS ZERO IN ON RUSSELL LAFFITTE
DAY 3: ALEX MURDAUGH WILLING TO TESTIFY AT LAFFITTE TRIAL
According to the lawsuit, PMPED uncovered Murdaugh’s schemes on September 2, 2021 – although in Laffitte’s trial we have learned that the firm’s chief financial officer, Jeanne Seckinger, confronted Murdaugh over missing money three months earlier, on June 7, 2021.
On that date, Murdaugh is accused of savagely murdering his wife and younger son at the family’s 1,700-acre “Moselle” hunting property along the Salkehatchie River.
Price’s controversial order (.pdf) in the case of PMPED v. Alex Murdaugh was for “summary judgment” – meaning he issued a ruling based solely on the facts of the case as described in court filings.
Price cited Murdaugh’s assertion of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to the allegations raised by his former law firm as the deciding factor in his decision to grant PMPED’s motion for a judgment against the disbarred lawyer.
“Because the defendant cannot offer evidence sufficient to create a material issue of fact the court is left with no choice but to grant the motion,” Price wrote.
Fair enough. However, Price’s order contained a very concerning section in which he asked PMPED to present it “damage submissions” to him within seven days (i.e. by November 16, 2022) and for Murdaugh’s counsel, Jim Griffin, to respond within five days of that submission (i.e. by November 21, 2022).
At that point, based on these submissions, Price would “enter final judgment” as it related to “actual and punitive damages” against Murdaugh.
In other words, the whole thing would be negotiated behind closed doors … quickly.
According to my sources, that is an incredibly expedited, incredibly secretive timeline. It also looks terrible from an optics standpoint given prior attempts by Murdaugh to “confess judgment” in cases involving his former law partners and family members.
DON’T MISS A STORY …
Those questionable moves were made right around the time Columbia, S.C. lawyer John T. Lay Jr. and former U.S. attorney Peter McCoy of Charleston were named as Alex Murdaugh’s receivers (i.e. the people in charge of his assets while he remains the focus of multiple criminal inquiries and civil suits). Lay and McCoy were appointed by S.C. circuit court judge Daniel Hall in no small part to keep Murdaugh from routing assets to family members and former law partners – which would have allowed them to recover funds that could have been made available to compensate other victims.
In other words, just the sort of maneuvering Price appears to be playing along with …
According to court emails obtained by this news outlet, Amy L.B. Hill – an attorney who has appeared in court on multiple occasions on behalf of the receivers – objected to Price’s order.
After Hill objected, Price informed attorneys he was amending his original order to include “a formal damages hearing.”
Hill’s objection did not sit well with PMPED’s attorney, Jamie L. Walters of Charleston, S.C., who fired off an email to the judge noting that the receivers were only notified as “a courtesy” and that they have “no standing to intervene in this action.”
That would imply judge Hall – who appointed the receivers in connection with an ongoing wrongful death case involving Murdaugh and other defendants – would have no authority regarding confessions of judgment (or quickie settlements) in other Murdaugh-related cases.
I reached out to Hill this week in the hopes of gaining some clarity regarding her objection to the order – and the authority of the receivers related to other cases. She declined to comment. When pressed as to whether the timing of Price’s order – and whether the judge was improperly expediting (and simultaneously concealing) a discussion of damages – Hill also declined to offer an opinion.
“Those issues are exclusively up to the judge,” Hill told me.
I also reached out to McCoy in an effort to get his thoughts on the proposed order.
McCoy declined to comment as well, saying he and Lay preferred to formally address any matters related to the case via court filings.
Sources close to this case, however, said there is “no way” the receivers could let Price’s order stand.
“They have to fight any attempt to push PMPED to the front of the line (to get settlement money),” a source following the case told me.
I concur …
Either way, Price’s attempt to quickly (and quietly) push this settlement forward is concerning – especially considering he is the presiding judge over the S.C. fourteenth judicial circuit, where Murdaugh’s January 2023 murder trial is set to take place.
THE ORDER …Proposed-Order
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has lots of hats – including that Indianapolis Colts’ greyscale lid pictured above.
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