Disgraced former banker and convicted fraudster Russell Laffitte was sentenced to seven years in federal prison on Tuesday – eight months after a jury found him guilty of bank fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and three counts of misapplying bank funds in the first criminal trial tied to the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga.
Laffitte, 53, of Estill, S.C., had been facing up to thirty years behind bars on the charges. He is currently appealing his convictions.
Sentencing and restitution memoranda filed by both parties previewed the arguments made in court on Tuesday before U.S. district court judge Richard Gergel. Specifically, an asset forfeiture request filed by assistant U.S. attorneys Emily Limehouse, Winston Holliday and Kathleen Stoughton sought total restitution in the amount of $3.56 million – including $1.2 million for Alex Murdaugh’s former law firm, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED) and $2.35 million for Palmetto State Bank (PSB), the financial institution Laffitte once ran.
In addition to these financial remittances, in their pre-sentencing memo (.pdf) the government argued federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of incarceration ranging anywhere from nine to 11.5 years.
Laffitte’s defense team, headed up by attorney Matthew Moore, indicated their intent to object to Laffitte’s sophisticated means and position of trust modifiers in their pre-sentencing memo. According to them, Laffitte was a mere cog in the fraud schemes concocted by convicted killer Alex Murdaugh.
Gergel wasn’t having it. He rejected objections from Laffitte’s lawyers throughout the sentencing hearing, saying “Murdaugh was the leader … but I think Mr. Laffitte was an integral part of the operation.”
Gergel ordered Laffitte to pay the full restitution. Additionally, he was ordered to forfeit the majority of the funds accumulated through his representation of sisters Hannah and Alania Plyler.
(Click to view)
(Prosecutors Emily Limehouse and Winston Holiday Via: Dylan Nolan)
Laffitte had the support of numerous family members and friends throughout his trial last November – and nine of those individuals spoke on his behalf during Tuesday’s proceedings. Gergel heard from Laffitte’s pastor, mother, wife, daughter and friends.
While the testimony of Laffitte’s family spoke to his importance in their lives, the testimony of his long-time friend Alex Jernigan spoke to Laffitte’s caring nature, something numerous member of his community have spoken of. Laffitte and Jernigan became acquainted at banking industry conferences, where they saw each-other a few times a year. When Laffitte learned of the untimely passing of Jernigan’s son he offered his support, and developed what turned into a deep friendship.
Jernigan spoke of how Laffitte took it upon himself to drive eleven hours to his home in Georgia to help him recover from the destruction of Hurricane Michael, and how he lent his farm equipment and generator to Jernigan and his neighbors so they could have access to power while they put their lives back together.
Laffitte served on the Hampton County disability board, an organization which he took considerable amounts of his time supporting. Of course the flip side of that coin is that Laffitte has been convicted of stealing money from quadriplegic Hakeem Pickney.
These contrasting depictions of Laffitte – a man who spent much of his time supporting his family and community but was also proven to have stolen money from people who trusted him – were stark.
Would Laffitte have fallen into a life of crime absent Murdaugh’s involvement in his life? The vast majority of Laffitte’s criminality was directly tied to Murdaugh’s incessant need for cash. Was Laffitte truly acting out of character? Gergel surely considered these questions as he listened to to Laffite’s friends and family.
Laffite’s testimony on his own behalf was, for the most part, contrite. He spoke of his regret for “actions and failures on my part that led me here today.” Yet he couched his apology in language suggesting he was duped, apologizing for “errors in my judgement, my mistakes and failures to ask the right questions that led me here.”
Laffitte asked to turn and speak to his victims. He told Hannah Plyler he couldn’t imagine having to relive the automobile accident that killed her mother in court, adding “my actions caused this.” To her sister, he said “I was struck by my own failures to handle your conservatorship properly, I wish I had taken the time to get to know you.”
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(Palmetto State Bank Via: Dylan Nolan)
After a lunch break both legal teams made their final appeals to Gergel. Defense attorneys highlighted the personal nature of banking in small towns, arguing Laffitte’s crimes should be sentenced “through this lens.” Gergel interrupted Moore, telling him he’d “heard about all of the good deeds Mr. Laffitte had done” but that “there was more than just bad judgement, there was complicity.”
He characterized Laffitte’s misappropriations as more than errors of judgement, calling them “criminal errors.”
Gergel told Moore “I thought he was guilty for all six counts” adding that Laffitte’s victims “were extremely vulnerable people … and he treated them like they were pieces on a chess board, moving them around … and this is a very different picture that what the wonderful people from Hampton County painted today.”
“This is the least pleasant aspect of my job, when I sentence someone – I send their family to prison” Gergel said.
Still, he argued criminals must be punished as a deterrent “if we are going to have a rule of law in society.”
“He made his choice to go to trial, he was convicted, now I must impose a sentence,” Gergel said.
Prior to Gergel imposing his sentence, prosecutors invited Laffite’s victims to speak. The Plyler sisters spoke of how difficult their childhood had been.
“Sometimes I felt like a homeless person begging for change to get my next meal,” Alania told the court.
Natasha Thomas asked that Gergel impose the appropriate sentence. Her attorney Justin Bamberg reminded the judge Thomas had to push her hair to the side to show jurors her injured and unseeing eye on the witness stand.
Hakeem Pinckney’s mother, Pamela Pinckney, told Laffitte that she forgave him – and told the victims she wished the “joy of the Lord be yall’s friend.”
After meticulously documenting Laffitte’s crimes during a two-week trial last November, the lead federal prosecutor also addressed the court.
“We believe it speaks volumes that this apology comes two years too late” Limehouse said, emphasizing Laffitte’s repeated failure to exhibit “genuine remorse or take responsibility.”
Limehouse argued Laffitte had been given “every opportunity the world and South Carolina has to offer” and that “the general deterrence message you can send to similarly situated defendants across South Carolina” supports the statutorily suggested sentence.
Following the sentencing, Moore asked for Laffitte to be given a bond to file an appeal – but Gergel pointed out in order to approve such a motion, he would have to find it “likely” that facts exist which would reverse the case. No such facts existed, and so the motion was denied.
Prosecutors asked the court to ensure Laffitte didn’t liquidate his assets to avoid paying restitution, and while Gergel ordered Laffitte not to liquidate his assets, he cautioned prosecutors that Laffitte has a right to use any money not tied up in the restitution however he chooses.
Laffitte’s attorneys indicated their intent to file an appeal multiple times throughout todays’s proceedings, so count on FITSNews for continued coverage of Russell Laffitte’s case.
In addition to his federal convictions, Laffitte is facing more than twenty state charges related to the Murdaugh saga. As for Murdaugh himself, he was criminally charged by the feds in late May of this year, sparking an ongoing battle between state and federal prosecutors over the disposition of the financial charges against him, Laffitte and another alleged co-conspirator, Cory Fleming – a former attorney from Beaufort, S.C.
Fleming has reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. He is set to stand trial on those charges in September of this year, while Murdaugh is reportedly set to stand trial the following month.
Murdaugh admitted to most of the financial schemes involving Laffitte when he testified in his own defense in February at his double homicide trial in Colleton County, S.C. A jury found Murdaugh guilty of murdering his wife and younger son on March 2, 2023 – and he was sentenced the following day to two consecutive life terms in prison by judge Clifton Newman.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
(Via: Travis Bell)
Dylan Nolan is the director of special projects at FITSNews. He graduated from the Darla Moore school of business in 2021 with an accounting degree. Got a tip or story idea for Dylan? Email him here. You can also engage him socially @DNolan2000.
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