Friday, July 30, 2004
Lawyer Facing Elder Abuse, Conspiracy Charges Appears in Court
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A 66-year-old downtown attorney could be sentenced to as much as seven years in prison if convicted on elder abuse and conspiracy charges, a prosecutor said yesterday as a preliminary hearing in the case began.
Beatrice Lawson is accused of helping two Jordanian immigrants swindle an 85-year-old woman out of $1.3 million. The two, brothers Ismat and Nashat Sabha, pled guilty in May, paying over $1 million in restitution and agreeing to go to Mexico and renounce their U.S. citizenship.
Special Agent John Rocha of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement testified yesterday in the downtown courtroom of Judge Norman Tarle that his investigation began after a $100,00 check was seized at a FedEx depot in Tennessee. The check, bound for Amman, Jordan, was discovered in a routine customs inspection, Rocha said.
Because it was endorsed, it was a negotiable instrument which should have been declared, the investigator explained.
He said the check led him to an account opened by the Sabha brothers with money obtained from Anne Kelly. When asked to explain the source of the funds, Ismat Sabha described Kelly as an “investor,” Rocha testified.
His investigation, the agent said, uncovered numerous instances of suspicious activity on accounts belonging to Kelly, including almost daily maximum-amount ATM withdrawals and Costco shopping sprees. Those activities had already caused bank officials to freeze several accounts, Rocha explained.
Rocha testified that he was told by Kelly’s financial adviser that the spending was inconsistent with Kelly’s lifestyle. The adviser described Kelly as a “very secretive and very stingy” woman of extremely frugal habits, the investigator said.
Lawson, Rocha testified, sought to intervene on at least two occasions after bank officials froze accounts or declined to execute wire transfers to Amman. The investigator said he was told by a brokerage branch manager that the manager was surprised to get a call from Lawson, representing herself as Kelly’s attorney.
Kelly had previously declined to identify her lawyer to the manager, Rocha explained, but said the attorney was located in Beverly Hills and offered to get in touch with “him.” Lawson’s office is in the 3500 block of Wilshire Boulevard.
The manager, Rocha said, told him Lawson accompanied Kelly to the branch in October of 2002 to close her accounts. Though the manager explained in detail the reasons for his suspicions, Lawson assured him Kelly was “okay” and just “wanted to spend the money any way she felt,” Rocha testified.
The manager told him Lawson intervened whenever he sought to pose questions directly to Kelly, even on one occasion pulling Kelly away from him, Rocha said. The elderly woman seemed “sedated” and it was “extremely clear to him that she was having some confusion and was not clear,” Rocha said he was told.
Preliminary hearing testimony in the case is to continue this afternoon. Deputy District Attorney Susan Powers said she plans to call a doctor who will testify about Kelly’s mental condition as well as a probate attorney who represented the conservator appointed for her after bank officials relayed their suspicions to a county social services agency.
According to court records, Kelly suffers from dementia. Rocha said her financial adviser told him she had investments of over $2 million before she was victimized.
Lawson, who was admitted to practice in 1975 but according to State Bar records served a three-month suspension in 1995, is free on her own recognizance. She is represented by attorney James P. Cooper III.
Under the terms of their plea agreement, the Sabha brothers agreed to go to Mexico and renounce their U.S. citizenship in return for suspension of seven-year prison sentences. Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the renunciation was carried out at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana and the two then returned to Jordan.
Two other defendants—Nashat Sabha’s wife, Guadalupe Rojo Sabha, and Anita McKinnon—also entered guilty pleas earlier this month. McKinnon, who is four years older than Kelly, was accused of aiding the Sabhas but under the plea bargains was also to receive restitution, as was another elderly victim, Norah Smith.
A sixth defendant is believed to be in hiding in Jordan, customs officials said.
In a declaration in the court file detailing his investigation, Rocha asserted that Lawson had previously represented Nashat Sabha and became involved in the effort to swindle Kelly in August of 2002 after the suspicions of bank officials were aroused by Kelly’s attempt to wire $450,000 from one of her accounts to a Sabha relative in Jordan.
When county social workers first were notified by bank officials about their suspicions, Lawson wrote a letter assuring them Kelly had the capacity to manager her own affairs, Rocha’s declaration said, adding that Lawson’s intervention succeeded in convincing a social worker to close the agency’s initial inquiry.
Rocha also reported telephone conversations with the defendant who is believed to be hiding in Jordan in which the man, a nephew of Ismat Sabha, said his uncle had repeatedly “told him to run Anne Kelly over with his car and make it look like an accident.” The nephew said he made at least one such attempt before being deported in 2003, Rocha asserted.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company