Attorneys representing the Mexican national who sued convicted killer Alex Murdaugh and convicted fraudster Russell Laffitte last fall – along with their former employers – recently amended their pleadings to allege a “criminal enterprise between the law firm and the bank” where Murdaugh and Laffitte used to work.
The new filing – submitted on Tuesday (August 8, 2023) in Hampton County, South Carolina – asserts the four essential elements required by the U.S. supreme court in support of a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) claim are clearly present following the trials and convictions of both Murdaugh and Laffitte. These elements include the (1) conduct; (2) of an enterprise; (3) through a pattern; (4) of racketeering activity.
The original bad faith lawsuit in this case was filed in October 2022. It is based on the belief Manuel Santis-Cristiani, a resident of Chiapas, Mexico, was not paid all he was owed when Murdaugh and his former law firm – Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED) – settled a product liability lawsuit on his behalf following a 2008 motor vehicle accident in Colleton County.
Murdaugh housekeeper Blanca Simpson acted as translator during mediation in this case – and was present at the bank on November 15, 2016 when Russell Laffitte wired its settlement funds to Santis-Cristiani. According to court filings, Simpson noticed a discrepancy between the amount of funds noted in the settlement agreement and the amount paid to Santis-Cristiani.
The civil suit filed on Santis-Cristiani’s behalf has already revealed $70,000 in potentially misappropriated settlement proceeds. This money was supposed to be paid to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) for the medical care Santis-Cristiani received following his accident. These funds were not disbursed until recently, however, when the firm formerly known as PMPED placed the money in escrow pending the resolution of the matter.
Based on the testimony of law firm and bank associates in the Laffitte and Murdaugh trials – and evidence that surfaced during discovery – Santis-Cristiani’s attorneys Glenn Walters and Korey Williams have concluded PMPED and Palmetto State Bank (PSB) were instrumental in the alleged fraud. Specifically, they insist statements in which the defendants admitted Murdaugh stole a portion of the settlement funds were “statements against self-interest” which revealed their own culpability.
“PMDED law was organized as a partnership,” Walters and Williams wrote in one of two new pleadings (.pdf) in the case. “All partners are therefore vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of its partner, Richard Alexander Murdaugh.”
Will that be enough to satisfy the requirements required to prove a claim of RICO?
According to attorneys for Santis-Cristiani – who recently reviewed nine volumes of testimony from Russell Laffitte’s November 2022 federal trial – it is more than enough.
In addition to Murdaugh and Laffitte operating a powerful, fraudulent criminal scheme that stole millions of dollars from injured clients, they claimed trial testimony established additional conspirators. Specifically, they allege that Johnny Parker – a partner of the law firm formerly known as PMPED – and Randolph Murdaugh III, former member of PMPED and Alex Murdaugh’s father, “received substantial sums of money from the criminal conspiracy between Laffitte and Richard Alexander Murdaugh, which involved stolen settlement funds from the law firm’s clients which were deposited in the defendant bank.”
The filing further claimed Alex Murdaugh’s late wife, Maggie Murdaugh, received substantial sums of money stolen by Murdaugh and Laffitte during the execution of the alleged criminal conspiracy. They pointed to the evidence provided during Murdaugh’s murder trial that showed Murdaugh killed Maggie and the couple’s younger son – Paul Murdaugh – mere hours after PMPED chief financial officer Jeanne Seckinger questioned him about funds missing from clients. Thereby establishing “a connection between the criminal activity and the murder.”
They also stated Murdaugh’s father died from “natural causes” in the days after Maggie Murdaugh was killed. Do the quotations inserted in the pleading around the words “natural causes” imply something more sinister might have been behind the death of Randolph Murdaugh III?
The motion also pointed to Murdaugh’s drug use and testimony during the murder trial which revealed that Murdaugh was heavily involved in ‘self-proclaimed” personal drug use to the tune of $50,000 a week. According to the motion, this is a “figure that inferentially suggests that something more than personal drug use was involved.”
RICO (NOT SUAVE) …
The application of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act – better known as RICO – in the financial crimes of Murdaugh and his alleged co-conspirators has long been debated. While no criminal charges alleging a RICO conspiracy have been filed to date, many have speculated if they could be in the pipeline.
RICO was enacted as Title IX of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, and signed into law by US President Richard Nixon. While its original intention in the 1970s was to prosecute mafia organizations, its later application has been more widespread.
Prior to the enactment of RICO, prosecutors could only try mob-related crimes individually. The mafia bosses were well aware of this and diversified by appointing different members of their gangs to commit crimes. This resulted in the government only prosecuting individual criminals instead of shutting down an entire criminal organization. In targeting the enterprise, RICO allowed for the prosecution of all individuals involved in a corrupt organization — from the mob bosses down to their “capos.”
While the government still utilizes RICO to break up gangs, because the law is so broad, it is no longer the primary application of it. Today, governmental and civil parties use it against all sorts of enterprises, both legal and illegal. It has become a key component of prosecution of white collar crimes.
While prosecutors have lauded the lengthy prison terms resulting from RICO convictions, the law’s real power is its civil component. A civil lawsuit can be brought by anyone alleging a RICO violation and the motivation to prove these violations is strong as individuals who are able to successfully prove their case receive treble damages. After attorneys filed an influx of RICO claims after the laws were passed, the federal courts set up a number of hurdles for civil RICO claims in the 1990’s.
Attorneys seeking a civil RICO claim must be able to prove the following elements:
- Criminal Activity: Attorneys must show that the defendant committed one of the enumerated RICO crimes, which include the broad crimes of mail and wire fraud. If you bring a claim on a fraud basis, however, the court will apply strict scrutiny.
- Pattern of Criminal Activity. One crime is not enough to file for civil RICO claim. Attorneys must show a pattern of at least two crimes. A pattern requires the crimes be related in some way—same victim, same methods, same participants—or continuous, meaning it was conducted over at least a year.
- Within the Statute of Limitations. The Supreme Court held that RICO has a four-year statute of limitations, which begins from the time the victim discovers his or her damages.
Does this case meet these standards? And should the threshold for a RICO claim be met, will other victims of Murdaugh and Laffitte follow suit?
THE AMENDED COMPLAINT …
(Via: S.C. Fourteenth Circuit)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
Jenn Wood is FITSNews' incomparable research director. She's also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she's married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at [email protected].
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