Former Montgomery malpractice lawyer sentenced to 5 years for bilking clients

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A former Montgomery County malpractice lawyer who stole more than $1 million in client funds before he was cheated by an e-mail scam was sentenced to five years in prison Monday by a judge who called the case "a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions."

The sentence, imposed in a hearing that shed light on how the $385,000 e-mail scam unfolded, was longer than recommended by state guidelines. It will send Bradley Schwartz, 62, to the state prison system, widely considered harsher than Montgomery's jail.

Circuit Court Judge Steven G. Salant said he wanted to send a message of deterrence. He said Schwartz, who had a longtime gambling problem and spent some of the money at Atlantic City casinos, has besmirched the reputation of lawyers throughout the state.

"He exploited a position of trust," Salant said. "I want to make it very clear that most of the 35,000 some-odd attorneys in the state of Maryland are very hard-working men and women who are honest and ethical. . . . It hurts me to think that when the community, when the public, looks at us, they're going to be looking at what the defendant did here."

Schwartz probably won't have to serve all five years. Maryland gives nonviolent offenders an early chance at parole, and Schwartz will be eligible within 15 months.

His attorney, Thomas L. Heeney, argued in court Monday for a shorter sentence to take into account Schwartz's health problems, the humiliation he has felt and the fact that a state lawyers fund has repaid most of Schwartz's victims and will repay the rest.

"I suggest he be allowed to go home today," Heeney said. "The pound of flesh has already been extracted."

Schwartz graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1973. His practice focused on medical malpractice and personal injury litigation. He gained a reputation around the courthouse as a likable lawyer, said Rockville lawyers who know him.

According to letters of support sent to the judge, Schwartz suffered for much of his life from depression, which overwhelmed him after the death of his wife in 1998 from polycystic kidney disease. "When his anchor died, he lost all stability," Heeney wrote in a memo to the judge.

Schwartz also had arthritis in his spine, sleep apnea, lymphoma and trigeminal neuralgia, which causes intense, shooting pain to the left side of his face.

At some point, Schwartz began dipping into a client escrow account. In many cases, money due one client was used to pay another. By late 2008, the scheme had been going on for years.

On Dec.3, 2008, Schwartz received an e-mail from a man who identified himself as Patrick Chan of Matilda Manufacturing, a purported Singapore manufacturer. Chan proposed that Schwartz help the company collect debts in the United States and offered to send Schwartz a retainer. Schwartz was sent a cashier's check for $385,000 and deposited it.

The scam was also perpetrated on other lawyers in the country.

The man named Chan intended to get Schwartz to send part of the money back before Schwartz realized the $385,000 was phony.

Schwartz, though, started writing checks off the new funds to clients, hoping to cover his losses. Those checks soon bounced, M&T Bank started looking into it and authorities were called, according to court records.

Over the past 1 1/2 years, Schwartz cooperated with investigators, wrote letters of apology to clients and helped tell them how to get reimbursed by the Client Protection Fund of the Bar of Maryland. He wrote a confessional letter to the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.

"I always thought that I eventually would be able to pay it back," Schwartz told the judge Monday. "But the grave became deeper and deeper. I just could not climb out of it."

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