Friday 16 November 2018

Solicitor diverted €266,000 from clients' wills into her own accounts

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Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A tribunal has recommended a solicitor be struck off after a Law Society investigation found she diverted €266,000 of client funds into her personal bank accounts.

The siphoned-off cash included sums left in a will to charity and a priest.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal heard Donegal solicitor Moya O'Donnell misappropriated and misused client funds between 2012 and 2017 and produced falsified documentation in an attempt to conceal her actions.

These included a letter purporting to be from the Revenue Commissioners, and a false record of an electronic fund transfer payment.

In one instance, €15,000, which should have been paid over to the beneficiary of a will was used by the solicitor to buy a car. Another €15,000 payment into the solicitor's personal bank account was recorded in her files as being fees paid to a county council.

Law Society investigators also found extensive evidence of "teeming and lading".

This is the use of one client's monies to discharge the liabilities of another with the deficits later being cleared from other client funds coming in.

The tribunal heard there was a potential shortfall of €476,000 in the client account which would have to be met by the Law Society's Compensation Fund.

Barrister Neasa Bird, for the Law Society, said it had uncovered "dishonest conduct of the most egregious nature" and the "falsification of books and records to attempt to conceal the dishonesty".

Ms O'Donnell was suspended from practising as a solicitor by the High Court last year. Her law firm in Killybegs and Glenties has since closed.

At the tribunal yesterday, her solicitor, Sean Sexton, said she was admitting to the allegations and acknowledged she was guilty of misconduct.

He said she accepted she was "going to face the ultimate sanction" of being struck off, but intended to make every effort to reimburse any shortfall on her client account.

Mr Sexton, who has represented solicitors at the tribunal for 20 years, said the matter had been "probably the most traumatic and emotionally upsetting case" he had dealt with.

Ms O'Donnell's husband, David Madden, took over the running of the practice last year while it was being closed down, but died in tragic circumstances shortly before Christmas. The tribunal heard he had not had any prior knowledge or involvement in his wife's actions.

Mr Sexton said a medical report showed Ms O'Donnell was extremely vulnerable and needed a lot of care and support from those around her.

Ms Bird told the tribunal that inspections of Ms O'Donnell's practice were conducted by the Law Society in August and November last year.

Investigating accountant Damien Colton identified 42 payments totalling €266,000 from the client account to Ms O'Donnell's personal and credit card accounts.

Several estates she had been handling had large deficits, with significant sums being paid into her personal accounts or used for unrelated client matters.

One estate examined had a net deficit of €289,000.

Another had a deficit of more than €16,000. This comprised two charitable bequests of €6,300 and a further bequest of €4,300 which should have been paid to a priest.

Instead all of the money went into the solicitor's personal account.

Irish Independent

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