A week after he was sentenced to four years in federal prison for his role in connection with convicted killer Alex Murdaugh’s many financial fleecings, Beaufort, South Carolina attorney Cory Fleming pleaded guilty in state court on Wednesday to more than twenty financial crimes – the sum of which could conceivably land him in jail for the rest of his life.
While still technically in federal custody, he was taken by agents of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and transferred to the Beaufort County, S.C. detention center where he will await a sentencing hearing on September 14, 2023.
Fleming’s sentencing being delayed was probably a good thing for him seeing as lead prosecutor Creighton Waters delivered a stirring evisceration of the disgraced lawyer during Wednesday’s hearing – which has held at the historic Williamsburg County courthouse in Kingstree, S.C.
“Cory told us he had been hoodooed by Alex like everyone else – he had been tricked,” Waters told presiding judge judge Clifton Newman. “We discovered he was a willing co-conspirator for more than a decade.”
From there, Waters proceeded to methodically document how Fleming knew exactly what Murdaugh was up to – masterfully exposing the defendant’s consciousness of guilt at every step of the scams.
The amount of money Fleming helped Murdaugh steal? More than $3.7 million – tens of thousands of which wound up in his own pockets at pivotal moments in his personal financial history. On multiple occasions, Waters documented how Fleming would raid a trust fund which should have gone to the heirs of Gloria Satterfield – Murdaugh’s late family housekeeper – so that he could pay his tax bills, mortgage payments and credit card debt.
“The motive is clear from his bank account why he’s stealing this money,” Waters told Newman. “He needed that money for personal purposes.”
Waters also documented how Fleming and Murdaugh stole money from a trust fund for Pamela Pinckney – the mother of one of Murdaugh’s clients, a deaf quadriplegic car crash victim named Hakeem Pinckney. Pinckney died under questionable circumstances just four days after a multi-million dollar settlement was reached in his case.
Murdaugh and Fleming used Pamela Pinckney’s funds to fly on a private plane to the 2012 College World Series – where their beloved University of South Carolina baseball team was competing.
“He and Alex were playing with millions of dollars that belong to (their victims),” Waters said, accusing the two friends of participating in “a conspiracy to put money that should be in the plaintiff’s pockets into their own.”
Waters also made it clear that according to the state, Fleming had “not lived up to his cooperation agreement.”
Equating the case to a speeding citation, Waters noted that “the facts as I’ve recited them repeatedly reference (Fleming) doing ninety in a fifty-five mile-per-hour zone, not fifty-eight.”
After Waters had concluded his presentation, Newman asked Fleming whether he disagreed with anything the lead prosecutor had said.
“I agree there are facts that establish my guilt on each of the indictments but I disagree with some of the statements made by Mr. Waters that I would like to address at sentencing,” Fleming told the court.
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Similarly, Fleming’s attorney – Deborah Barbier of Columbia, S.C. – said she had “some disagreement with certain facts” but indicated she desired to address those issues at Fleming’s sentencing hearing, as well.
“I can get into any specifics the court would like but I think it’s appropriate for sentencing,” Barbier said.
Clearly, Barbier was eager to get out of the courtroom as quickly as possible given the devastating documentation presented by Waters in what amounted to the equivalent of a closing argument at trial.
Right out of the gate, Waters made it clear he was asserting the prosecutorial sovereignty of the state of South Carolina – a clear dig at federal prosecutors following their deal with Murdaugh’s former best friend and the godfather to his surviving son, Buster Murdaugh.
“Today, in a state court, is the first time that we’re going to see accountability for abuse of the state court system,” Waters began. “It’s a very complex way in which it was done, but I have to remind the court that this is a state lawyer who had a state law license who abused that state law license in state court actions before state court judges with state court settlements and things that happened in the state of South Carolina.”
“That’s why it demands a resolution – the state judicial system has to have accountability for someone who has abused that very system,” Waters said.
State and federal attorneys have been battling for months over the financial charges against Murdaugh and his co-conspirators. In fact, prosecutors in the offices of South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson and U.S. attorney Adair Ford Boroughs have been “at war” since mid-spring – with state prosecutors accusing the feds of “copying” their work in this case.
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Attorneys for Murdaugh and Fleming’s victims were thrilled with the aggressive recapitulation provided by Waters – which stood in stark contrast to the comparatively gentle treatment Fleming received in federal court.
Justin Bamberg – who represents Pamela Pinckney – spoke of how important this case would be in establishing a baseline for future cases involving attorney misconduct in the Palmetto State.
“To the legal community, this is so important,” Bamberg told me. “Every now and then, you have a standard-setting moment in history. This is one of those moments. The sentences issued here are going to set the standard for the most egregious lawyer conduct we’ve seen in a century. The punishment’s gotta match the egregiousness of the conduct.”
Eric Bland – a Lexington, S.C. attorney who represents the heirs of Gloria Satterfield – agreed wholeheartedly with Bamberg. He also praised Waters for pulling no punches in laying out the narrative of Fleming’s misconduct.
“If you are going to do it for deterrence, you have to have a record,” Bland told me. “If we are going to have accountability – if we are going to have an educational moment for the rest of the bar – there has to be a record. You can’t have someone come in at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute and say ‘I’m sorry.’ You cannot let it go on like that, you have to say on the record ‘this is what he did.””
“He’s no victim,” Bland added. “He was an active participant.”
As for last week’s federal plea agreement, Bland told me U.S. district judge Richard Gergel‘s four-year sentence of Fleming should not be the extent of the consequences he faces for his conduct.
“Gergel’s sentence was not enough,” he said. “You have to punish the crime not just the person.”
Bland reiterated that in addition to the criminal conspirators – the judges who signed off on these shady deals should be subjected to further scrutiny. He specifically singled out embattled S.C. circuit court judge Carmen Mullen – who approved many Murdaugh-related settlements (including the Satterfield agreement).
According to Bland, Mullen never questioned dubious assertions made by Fleming and Murdaugh in settlement filings – even though the claims clearly “made no sense.”
“Mullen never asked!” Bland said, referring to a host of six-figure expenses linked to a case which was not in litigation and in which no depositions were being taken.
As for the back and forth between the state and the feds, Bland made it clear “the attorney general’s office built this case.”
“The is case was built by Creighton Waters and me in 2021,” he said.
Waters acknowledged as much during his remarks before the court, saying were it not for “the work of the statewide grand jury and SLED, Fleming might be on his boat wearing capri pants.”
Federal prosecutors have pushed back against the state’s contention, arguing an agreement was in place for them to handle the financial crimes component of the Murdaugh saga while Waters’ team handled the high-profile double homicide case earlier this year.
And handle that case they did. On March 2, 2023, a Colleton jury found Murdaugh guilty of brutally murdering his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and his younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh at Moselle – the family’s 1,700-acre hunting property straddling the Salkehatchie River on the border of Colleton and Hampton counties.
Murdaugh’s appeal of those convictions is in the works.
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.
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