Murdaughs

Murdaugh Saga: Cory Fleming’s Checkered Past

Did he learn from Alex Murdaugh? Or vice-versa?

A decade before any of convicted killer Alex Murdaugh’s documented financial crimes came to light, South Carolina attorneys Cory Fleming and James Moss were facing a lawsuit alleging legal malpractice.  They were sued by a client over a firearms collection the law partners obtained from the Beaufort County sheriff’s office.

As a Murdaugh co-conspirator, Fleming is implicated in many of the most familiar frauds his college roommate has admitted committing – including defrauding insurance companies regarding a claim made in connection with his late housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, and personal injury claims for the family of Hakeem Pinckney – a deaf quadriplegic who was seriously injured in a car crash.

Fleming was also Connor Cook‘s original attorney in the high-profile wrongful death case of Mallory Beach – the Hampton, S.C. teen who died in a boat crash that began the unraveling of the powerful Murdaugh empire. Fleming’s representation of a client in that case was a clear conflict of interest considering he was Paul Murdaugh‘s godfather – and a major point of contention in the case was whether it was Paul Murdaugh or Connor Cook driving the boat when it crashed.

Yet, these widely known events were preceded by others that ended up in court – like the aforementioned firearm case involving Larry David Rutland complaint. Unlike the recent high-profile cases, these preceding events did not involve Alex Murdaugh. 

Having received a lenient federal sentence of nearly four years as part of a plea deal, Fleming was recently sentenced to thirteen years by S.C. circuit court judge Clifton Newman for the state charges he pleaded guilty to in Kingstree, S.C. in late August.

His attorney, Deborah Barbier, recently filed a notice of appeal (.pdf) of that sentence.

In doing so, she took exception to Judge Newman’s comments.

“He referred to this case as being as bad as it gets for a lawyer who has a prior record.” (State Sentencing Tr. 97: 23-25). He then stated that although Mr. Fleming has no prior convictions – when “you carry on a scheme of over a decade, that’s a record, a record that did not result in charges or convictions but a record of his life.” (State Sentencing Tr. 97:-98:2).”

-Amended notice of appeal for Cory Fleming

While Murdaugh’s schemes spanned a little more than a decade, the recorded history of complaints against Fleming goes back to 2000 – beginning with the Rutland legal malpractice case.

A sentencing memo filed in U.S. district court noted that Fleming graduated from law school and became a member of the South Carolina bar in 1994.

“He began his law career as an assistant solicitor in the fourteenth circuit solicitor’s office working for Randolph Murdaugh and living in Hampton, South Carolina,” the memo stated. “In 1996 he began private practice in Beaufort, South Carolina at Moss and Kuhn.”

Over the years, several different complaints have been filed against Fleming and his law partners alleging legal malpractice of some form or fashion.

In 2014, Christopher Williams filed a pro se suit against Fleming after the attorney failed to file an appeal on Williams’ behalf as requested. Williams sought $1 million in damages. The case was dismissed because the plaintiff, who was representing himself, filed the case in federal court – which was not the proper venue for such a case. The court dismissed the case without prejudice leaving the door open for a legal malpractice suit to be filed in South Carolina.

In 2017, Kathleen Goodnough filed a lawsuit in Beaufort County alleging legal malpractice and negligence. Goodnough was injured when a tree fell on her car in 2009 and subsequently hired Kimberly Smith of Moss, Kuhn and Fleming to represent her. Smith failed to property administer the case and that negligence resulted in an abrupt dismissal of the case, according to the filing. Instead of informing Goodnough her case had been dismissed, though, members of the firm allegedly misled and lied to her. Nonetheless, a stipulation of dismissal in the legal malpractice lawsuit was entered in 2018.

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THE RUTLAND CASE …

Moss and Fleming represented Rutland through a divorce and state and federal criminal proceedings involving weapons and cocaine. After the sheriff’s department seized their client’s gun collection, the attorneys came into possession of it. Then, the complaint alleges, they sold the gun collection and pocketed the proceeds. Despite the destruction of the evidence presented in the case before it was settled in 2002, many of the details of the contentious lawsuit play out in more than 150 pages of filings.

The complaint filed July 2000 by attorney F. Mikell Harper stated that Moss and Fleming were hired to represent Rutland. However, an order in family court disqualified Moss based on a conflict of interest. Subsequently, Moss and Fleming caused an order to be entered without Rutland’s knowledge or consent. The order made it impossible for Rutland to sell his real estate even though a transaction was pending. The complaint further alleged that without Rutland’s knowledge or consent, the attorneys obtained a court order that was used to take possession of Rutland’s gun collection. The collection, valued at $20,000, was subsequently sold.

The lawsuit alleged that the gun collection was fraudulently obtained because it was done without Rutland’s knowledge while a conflict of interest existed, a judge signed off on the order without a hearing on the matter, and the order was not filed with the Clerk of Court as required by law.

An uninformed client, a judge’s signature without a hearing, and an un-filed court order – it all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it?

These were the tricks of Murdaugh’s trade … but did Fleming learn them from him? Or vice versa?

When Rutland discovered what happened he hired another attorney in an attempt to obtain information about his gun collection. At that point, he allegedly received a phone call from Moss. According to the lawsuit, Moss told Rutland if he did not fire the attorney he retained for this purpose, he would stop representing Rutland on the criminal charges – which would result in him going to jail. Moss also allegedly said he would put an end to a pending real estate transaction involving the sale of Rutland’s home.

Claiming he paid for legal services that were never provided, Rutland demanded a full accounting of his legal fees, as well as the guns seized and sold. However, his demands were refused.  

In response to the filing of the complaint, the attorneys responded with a filing that said the state was preparing to take and destroy the weapons when Rutland agreed to have them turned over to the law firm so they could be sold and the proceeds applied to his attorneys fees.  A counter claim alleges that Rutland had an outstanding balance – attorneys fees that remained unpaid. 

In April 2002, the parties reached an agreement and the suit was dismissed. Court records indicate that Moss, Fleming and their firm paid an undisclosed amount to Rutland.

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CO-CONSPIRATORS? OR VICTIMS?

The aggrieved client in the aforementioned case, Rutland, came to be represented by attorney Desa Ballard after Moss and Fleming had Harper disqualified. Ballard is now serving as the plaintiff’s expert in the case of Manuel Santis-Cristiani – a Mexican national who filed a legal malpractice case against Alex Murdaugh, Ronnie Crosby, William Barnes, Parker Law (formerly PMPED), Palmetto State Bank and Russell Laffitte.

Murdaugh housekeeper Blanca Simpson acted as translator during mediation in this case – and was present at the bank on November 15, 2016 when Laffitte wired its settlement funds to Santis-Cristiani.

Fleming’s name recently came up in the Santis-Cristiani case due to a federal restitution order.

The firm formerly known as PMPED is now claiming victim status related to Murdaugh’s financial crimes, having been granted that title (or privilege) by the federal court in restitution orders handed out to convicted co-conspirators Fleming and Laffitte.

The federal sentencing of convicted Murdaugh co-conspirator Russell Laffitte included a restitution order of $1,207,016.14 to be paid to Parker Law. Likewise, a federal judgment for Fleming included a restitution order of $89,133.44 to be paid to Parker Law.

Fleming’s order requires him to pay Crosby of Parker Law for losses suffered by PMPED and similarly to pay Pamela Pinckney, mother of Hakeem Pinkney. In motions filed in the case and in the oral arguments presented in a recent hearing the firm’s counsel conjures up victimhood with such conviction – portraying the firm as partners in misery with the Satterfields, Plylers or Pinckneys – all of whom suffered great loss, the death of a loved one and in some cases, severe physical injury, an event of extreme misfortune that caused them to be at the mercy of Murdaugh’s crooked whims.  

The sentiment was expressed by counsel for the law firm defendants in last week’s hearing and in recent filings in the Cristiani case. Their conclusion is that as victims they cannot also be co-conspirators. This logic is being used to diffuse the plaintiff’s efforts to amend the complaint to allege racketeering.  

“If Defendant Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, P.A. had participated in crimes for which the banker defendant was convicted, the law firm would have been precluded from receiving restitution because a participant in a crime cannot be considered a victim for restitution,” a recent filing stated. “Similarly, if Ronnie Crosby had participated in any scheme or conspiracy, he could not be the point of contact for the restitution order from the Court.”

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Yet, Ballard’s affidavit in the Cristiani civil suit regarding the law firm defendants does not agree with the firm’s assessment of their situation. Far from being described as victims, Ballard’s words assign responsibility.

According to her, Crosby, Barnes and Murdaugh violated their professional obligations to Cristiani by failing to keep him informed, failing to properly calculate and account for the funds collected, failing to insure proper distribution of the funds collected, and failure to properly account for the funds withheld from the client’s settlement.

The bad faith lawsuit filed by Cristiani’s attorneys on October 7, 2022 in Hampton County raised the issue of whether the former Murdaugh client received all of the settlement money he was entitled to when Murdaugh represented him in a product liability lawsuit resulting from a 2008 motor vehicle accident.

Since the suit was filed against Murdaugh last fall, it has come to light that at least $70,000 of the settlement money was mis-appropriated. The $70,000 was owed to Medical University of South Carolina for Santis-Cristiani’s medical bills but ended up in a fake account Murdaugh created to pull off his fleecings.

Recent filings have provided some explanation of the lawsuit’s origin. Simpson, who served as the interpreter for the settlement negotiations, was present at the bank in 2016 when Laffitte wired the settlement funds to Santis-Cristiani. As he walked away from the desk, she observed a document that outlined the distribution of the settlement funds. The discrepancy between the settlement and the funds disbursed to Santis-Cristiani led Simpson to believe he was shorted.

It remains to be seen how Ballard’s expert opinion will impact the Santis-Cristiani case – or whether the concerns raised in that case will ever be taken to trial. Both sides are awaiting the court’s decision on some matters fundamental to the suit following a motions hearing on September 25, 2023.

As for Fleming, he is serving his federal sentence and, as noted, appealing his state sentence.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Callie Lyons (Provided)

Callie Lyons is a journalist, researcher, and author whose investigative work can be found in media outlets, publications, and documentaries all over the world – most recently in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde and a German documentary for ProSieben. Lyons also appears in Citizen Sleuth – a 2023 documentary exploring the genre of true crime.

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2 comments

stephen henry Top fan October 6, 2023 at 12:34 pm

Great reporting. Of course what immediately struck me is that almost from the day he graduated from law school, he was professionally joined at the hip to Murdaugh family. This leads me to believe that his professional timeline includes MANY illegal activities. He was definitely not a “Murdaugh virgin” when he and Alex began committing the specific crimes for which Fleming was recently tried and sentenced. No way this will ever happen, but if a documented list of “Grandpa Handsome’s” crimes was ever revealed to public, it would make his son’s criminal record look like a nothing-burger (probably including the murders). BTW, Alex is still getting away with the definite murder of Gloria Satterfield and very likely his direct involvement in the murder of Stephen Smith. Just saying. Keep up the good work.

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B B BROCKMAN Top fan October 7, 2023 at 10:07 am

The one thing all these crooks have in common, from both Law Firms to the Banker to even the local Judge, all Democrats

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