Richard J. Breibart, an attorney in Lexington, S.C., for 33 years, specialized in litigating high-profile criminal and civil cases. A once prominent member of the community, he was known for throwing lavish Christmas parties for hundreds of people, according to The State newspaper.
But now, Breibart faces a 10-count federal indictment for extortion and fraud, and a maximum of 20 years in prison on each count.
The saga has been a bizarre one, especially for an attorney who once presided over a 14,000-square-foot office and employed about two dozen lawyers.
But in recent years, according to the federal indictment, Breibart started using his formidable legal talents to get people to pay him enormous sums of money so he could make charges or investigations against them go away. But the twist? There never were any charges or investigations against these people. The cases were fake.
According to The State, in late May Breibart told his staff via email that they wouldn't be getting their paychecks on the fifth day of the month, as they usually did.
"The finances of the firm are such that we will not be able to cover payroll at this time," Breibart told his staff of lawyers, paralegals and secretaries, according to The State.
Breibart subsequently shut down his office and website without telling his employees why. On June 1, the state Supreme Court placed Breibart, 61, on an interim suspension, and also appointed a trustee, Mark Barrow, to take charge of Breibart's mail, files, client accounts and bank accounts.
"The trustee does not take over cases, he just makes sure people get their files back," Lee Coggiola, the executive director of the Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, told ABC News. "That can obviously be very difficult, depending on how many open files there are. There could be people who are incarcerated. They might have to get new counsel."
Coggiola would not say why Breibart was suspended, but she confirmed that she had received several complaints about his conduct. "We are investigating all the complaints that came in against Mr. Breibart," she said.
So is the FBI.
On Sept. 19, Breibart was arrested and charged with five counts of extortion, four counts of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud. The indictment lists three different people who allegedly wiped out their savings, investment and retirement accounts to pay Breibart. According to the indictment, between November 2010 and June, 2012, Breibart devised and intended to defraud clients and to obtain money and property from them by means of "false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises."
He told clients that they faced IRS penalties and possible criminal charges, but that he would handle the cases himself and keep the matters private and sealed if they paid him specified amounts of money.
In one instance, Breibart told a man that he owed the IRS $368,000, but that if he paid the full amount, along with a $50,000 "attorney's fee," Breibart would take care of the matter. The man transferred the money, even though there was no IRS investigation. Breibart, in turn, "converted those funds to pay for expenses and obligations … to his law firm, to him personally and to other clients."
In another instance, Breibart told a woman whom he had helped with her divorce that her "estranged husband was being investigated by the IRS and that her assets were vulnerable." Breibart told her to liquidate and transfer money to him to be held in his trust account. The woman sent Breibart's firm a $500,000 check from her investment accounts. But there had never been any IRS investigation.
Breibart even asked a couple to send him $218,000 because he said their son, whom he had once represented on state criminal charges, might be targeted by the FBI. But if they gave him hundreds of thousands of dollars, Breibart would keep the FBI at bay. The couple did, but there had never been any investigation against their son, according to the indictment.
Unable to make a $100,000 bond, Breibart, who has pleaded not guilty, spent Wednesday in custody, according to court records. ABC News could not reach Breibart for comment. His lawyer, public defender John Herman Hare, did not respond to ABC News' requests for comment.
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