In all the thousands of pages of legal documents written in the sprawling Murdaugh saga in recent years, a zinger in a footnote written last week by a federal judge about disgraced lawyer and convicted killer-thief Alex Murdaugh might be among the most memorable:
“There is certainly rich irony in the Defendant (Murdaugh), who engaged in the methodical theft of millions of dollars in client funds and then expended the great majority of those funds for his personal use, to accuse two honorable members of the Bar serving as state receivers of wasting assets,” wrote federal Judge .
Gergel wrote the footnote Tuesday in a three-page order denying a request by four of Murdaugh’s criminal lawyers, including Phil Barber, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, to have the federal government seize Murdaugh’s assets over which state court-appointed receivers had exercised stewardship for nearly two years.
Murdaugh’s lawyers wrote in a Sept. 25 motion that the federal government can be good stewards of Murdaugh’s assets and do the work for free, while the current state stewards — called receivers — are charging hefty lawyers’ fees and will “further dissipate” the assets. The motion also asked for an accounting of the assets.
In his order, Gergel shot down the Murdaugh lawyers’ motion on three grounds, including that Murdaugh has no recognizable interest in any assets now under the control of the state receivers — an amount said to be nearly $2 million.
“A criminal defendant has no authority to demand that the Attorney General or any other officer of the United States Government do his bidding regarding the seizure of his stolen funds,” wrote Gergel in the body of his three-page order.
Moreover, in a matter where a state has already assumed control over a defendant’s assets, the federal government has no jurisdiction because the state already has “dominion,” Gergel wrote.
Gergel also noted that the Murdaugh lawyers’ motion suggested that the current lawyer-receivers, John T. Lay and Peter McCoy, “have engaged in some kind of misconduct” and are wasting assets. But the Murdaugh lawyers provided “no specific evidence” as to misconduct, the judge wrote.
Lay had this reaction to Gergel’s order: “We are glad this distraction is over and we look forward to moving ahead with the process established by Judge (Daniel) Hall so there can be a speedy and equitable distribution of the funds to Alex Murdaugh’s victims and creditors.”
Murdaugh pleaded guilty before Gergel in Charleston federal court on Sept. 21 to 22 counts of federal financial crimes involving some $9 million in embezzlements and thefts over more than 10 years. He had been indicted on May 23.
Although a state grand jury under the S.C. Attorney General’s office had begun indicting Murdaugh for state versions of roughly the same set of crimes, state prosecutors have not yet tried Murdaugh or persuaded him to plead guilty. An initial state trial addressing Murdaugh’s thefts has been set for Nov. 27.
Nearly two years ago, state Judge Hall put Murdaugh’s assets under the control of two receivers — attorneys McCoy and Lay — and gave them the authority to identify, collect and administer all the assets.
Hall acted on the request of Mark Tinsley, who represented the estate of Mallory Beach, a 19-year-old woman killed in a boat crash involving Murdaugh’s boat and youngest son, Paul.
At that time, in early November 2021, Murdaugh was just beginning to be charged with an ever-expanding succession of financial crimes by the state, and Tinsley was concerned that Murdaugh was going to liquidate and hide his assets.
Tinsley said he believed Gergel’s order was “the only right decision.”
Barber, a Murdaugh lawyer, said, “We respect the judge’s order” and indicated an appeal was not likely.
A state jury in March convicted Murdaugh of two counts of murder in the 2021 shooting deaths of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, at their 1,770-acre estate in rural Colleton County. Murdaugh is now serving two consecutive life sentences in state prison.
Gergel’s order only concerned Murdaugh’s financial crimes and not any aspect of his murder convictions.
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