Friday, December 28, 2012

Lawyer, Wife Met Prison Terms for Scamming Disabled Veterans

Posted on Behalf of Attorney Ross Goodman for Criminal Defense

A 73-year-old longtime Houston lawyer, like his 72-year-old wife earlier this year, was handed a
46-month prison term for stealing from forty-nine disabled military veterans.

Joe Phillips on Wednesday was sentenced by Judge Lee H. Rosenthal to 46 months in federal prison. He was also ordered to repay $2.35 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which claims to have already compensated most of his victims, and to pay an additional $282,112 to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for his income tax liability.

Phillips pleaded guilty in September to two of the 21 conspiracy to make false statements, misappropriation by a fiduciary and signing a false income tax return charges he faced and admitted that between 2003 and 2007, he had transferred over $1.36 million from client accounts to a joint checking account for himself and his wife Dorothy.

Dorothy Phillips in April pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making a false statement on a tax return. She was earlier sentenced to the same penalty as her husband.

Joe Phillips worked for the VA for several years until the 1980s when he started his own private law practice, working mainly for clients who were disabled veterans. His wife served as his legal assistant. The couple reported an annual income of $100,000 to $145,000 from 2004 to 2007, lived in a modest house and drove a Lexus. Also beginning in the early 1980s, according to the indictment record, Phillips won approval to manage benefits and assets for as many as 50 disabled veterans at a time as both a VA fiduciary and as a payee under the Social Security Administration. In both roles, he received disabled veterans' benefit checks and also managed veterans' bank accounts and spending. In at least 28 cases, probate courts also reportedly appointed him to oversee veterans' estates as well as to dispose of dead veterans' assets.

For 25 years, the VA never audited Phillips. In 2007 however, VA auditors uncovered falsified balances, fake accounts and other irregularities. Attorneys later appointed by probate judges to investigate further found evidence that the thefts and fraud had been going on undetected for at least about a decade. As a fiduciary, Phillips has apparently been overseeing and signing annual accountings and reports with false information. The VA has never released a complete list of the amounts each veteran lost.

Phillips' wife, a self-described gambling addict, admitted to committing the fraud while working as his legal assistant. Dorothy admitted misusing some veterans' money to fund casino trips to Louisiana where she often gambled at L'Auberge du Lac and Delta Downs. Investigators found that the couple sometimes withdrew cash from ATMs inside casinos during such gambling trips.

At Wednesday’s sentencing hearing Judge Rosenthall gave the elderly couple enough time to spend Christmas together as well as to wrap up Phillips' legal practice before reporting to prison. Said he after handing the sentence, “This is a very sad case. Sad because of the lives so changed … the victims of course were in a sad place to start with and that's why they needed Mr. Phillips. He did not serve them."