Leitrim solicitor who took huge fees from elderly clients is suspended
A Leitrim solicitor, who was last year suspended by the High Court, had run up a deficit in her client accounts of at least €566,000 and owed the Revenue Commissioners €250,000, a Law Society investigation found.
Orla Ellis, daughter of former Fianna Fáil TD John Ellis, was suspended by the High Court last August after an emergency Law Society regulation committee meeting found she acted “dishonestly” in her handling of client funds.
Ellis, who also goes by her married name Feehan, was found to have taken exorbitant fees from elderly clients and estates where she was responsible for administering bequests made in wills.
One will directed €100,000 be paid to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind — but it was not paid. A number of charities were found not to have received hundreds of thousands of euro that were left to them by Ellis’s clients.
Ellis comes from a well-known Fianna Fáil family. Her father was both a TD and senator for the party and she campaigned for her brother Shane in the 2020 general election.
In 2019, Ellis and her husband Cormac Feehan took over control of Quinn’s pub in the village of Fenagh in Leitrim.
The Sunday Independent has obtained a copy of the affidavit in the suspension case from Michael Costello, a Law Society accountant, who was appointed last June 16 to investigate if Ellis & Co, based in Ballinamore, was in compliance with anti-money laundering obligations.
Ellis responded promptly to the Law Society notice to ask for the inspection to be moved to mid-August as she was taking leave. Costello agreed to postpone his inspection until July 25.
At the practice he asked Ellis to provide a copy of a Section 150 notice, which would set out her expected legal costs, in relation to Bernadette Comey, the executrix of the estate of Katherine McTague.
There was an unpaid €10,000 bequest that was meant for the Salvation Army. Ellis had received €595,207 into her client account from Ms McTague’s bank on November 12, 2019. Costello calculated that Ellis transferred a total of €286,700 from these funds into her office account up to June 2022.
The accountant said Ellis told him she could not find the file — but “made out she was looking for it”.
He did not see any searching on her part and had to leave that day without seeing the file.
He said Ellis asked him if she would be “struck off” — but he responded that he needed to see the file first.
He was concerned Ellis may have brought the file home to work on overnight.
He said Ellis maintained that the executrix was happy with her costs in the McTague case and she would get her to sign off on them.
Costello said he asked if Ellis thought her costs were “extortionate” and she said “it might look that way” and became very worried.
Costello believed Ellis was “very nervous” throughout his inspection.
“She admitted that her husband had bought a pub just before the pandemic and that they had spent a lot of money on it, so perhaps they would be under a lot of pressure given the lockdown,” he said. However, Ellis told him “they were doing very well”.
He said Ellis claimed to have had “two heart attacks during Covid” and “yet appeared to be a relatively young woman”.
By July 27, the accountant had concerns about six separate files, where he believed the deficit in client funds could total €570,000.
Ellis was proposing to go on holiday to Spain.
The Law Society said that, given the early findings from Costello, she was “requested” to appoint a second signatory for her client account before leaving the country.
Ellis agreed and Gerry Kilrane of Gerard M Kilrane & Co, a former Fianna Fáil councillor, agreed to become a joint signatory for Ellis’s client account. Mr Kilrane had no prior involvement in the running of Ellis & Co. He voluntarily agreed to become a joint signatory in order to assist the Law Society and ensure that client funds held by Ellis & Co were protected from any further wrongdoing.
In his interim investigation report, Costello found that, in the McTague case, Ellis appeared to have issued a fee estimate for the €595,207 estate of €100,000 plus Vat and funeral expenses of €6,000. However, he said it was “unclear” if the client received this.
He said Ellis admitted to him on the first day that a “reasonable fee” for the case was €15,000.
The will of Ms McTague had directed that €100,000 be paid to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind — but this bequest was not paid.
Dogs Trust was left €200,000 and this appeared to have been paid on June 16, 2022 — the day the Law Society began to investigate Ellis.
Costello estimated the deficit in the McTague case to be €271,700 — taking a “reasonable legal fee” of €15,000.
In relation to another file involving four estates of the Kearns family, it appeared Ellis had taken €227,413 from their estates which included transfers to other unrelated client accounts.
A letter in 2019 confirmed her original fee quote was €28,000 for the four Kearns cases.
The executrix in those cases was a woman in her 90s.Ellis claimed to have made distributions to beneficiaries in 2021 following a query from the Law Society — but the accountant found this had not happened until June 22, 2022.
He found the total deficit on the Kearns cases was €194,259.
Costello found significant deficits and maladministration in a number of other files, including a €10,000 bequest that had not been paid to the Salvation Army, the charity that provides services and shelter to homeless people.
Ellis’s total tax liabilities were €248,749 and this was likely to increase
In another case Ellis extracted €25,730 from the €100,000 proceeds of a sale of a house by an elderly client who lived in a nursing home. Mr Costello estimated the correct fee was €1,300.
The accountant found that Ellis had instructed her bookkeeper to “conceal” debt balances from client ledgers and authorised transfers to and from unconnected accounts.
Ellis told Costello that she had changed accountant in the previous two years and amended her VAT returns because they had not been done correctly. She admitted owing Revenue €67,000 — but Costello said her total tax liabilities were €248,749 and this was likely to increase “substantially”.
The Law Society held an emergency regulation committee meeting last August 12, based on the accountant’s report that estimated Ellis’s deficit to her clients at €566,000 but feared it could be “far greater”.
Before the hearing, a solicitor representing Ellis said she wanted to have her name removed from the roll of solicitors and she accepted Mr Costello’s report “in full”.
Ellis was “not in a position to deal with the deficit in client funds” and was receiving medical help.
Mr Costello said the committee determined that Ellis had been “dishonest in her practice as a solicitor” and this “dishonesty” caused the deficit in client funds.
He said there was an acknowledged practice of “teeming and lading”, a form of bookkeeping fraud, by Ellis.
The suspension of Ellis was confirmed by the High Court on August 18 by Judge Garrett Simmons.
This weekend the Law Society said it could not comment on an ongoing investigation. The gardaí said they were not aware of any complaint against Ellis at this time.
*This article has been updated to state that Mr Gerard Kilrane had no prior involvement in the running of Ellis & Co before he voluntarily agreed to become a joint signatory in order to assist the Law Society and ensure that client funds held by Ellis & Co were protected from any further wrongdoing.