Tuesday, August 3, 2004
Testimony Suggests Lawyer Accused of Elder Abuse May Have Gained Little
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A 66-year-old downtown lawyer facing conspiracy and elder abuse charges may have gained as little as $3,000 from the alleged plot, preliminary hearing testimony yesterday suggested.
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.
But Special Agent John Rocha of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement testified yesterday in the downtown courtroom of Judge Norman Tarle that his investigation turned up only three checks from the alleged victim, Anne Kelly, to Lawson. Those checks, he said, totaled only $3,000.
Under cross examination by Lawson’s attorney, James P. Cooper III, Rocha also conceded that he had been unable to document any link between Lawson and the Sabhas predating Lawson’s involvement with Kelly.
The investigator said he believed Lawson might have represented Nashat Sabha in his divorce, or might have obtained an insurance settlement on behalf of a Hollywood convenience market owned by Ismat Sabha. Rocha also testified he had been told by Ismat Sabha’s nephew, who allegedly took part in the plot but was deported before the criminal charges were filed, that Lawson was aware of the details of the scheme to steal Kelly’s money and received additional cash payments.
But prosecutor Susan Powers wrapped up the live testimony portion of her case yesterday without further substantiating those allegations. The preliminary hearing is to conclude today with Powers reading into the record portions of deposition testimony Lawson gave in connection with a conservatorship established for Kelly.
Cooper indicated he will not present testimony.
Rocha and Cooper sparred over the significance of two investigations into Kelly’s situation launched, and then closed, by county Adult Protective Services officials. Cooper noted that social workers visited Kelly in connection with the investigations, but determined she was able to care for herself.
The investigations stemmed from reports by banks which had become suspicious of activity on Kelly’s accounts, including almost daily ATM withdrawals for the maximum amount and attempts to wire money to Jordan.
A geriatric psychiatrist testified Friday that Kelly was likely already suffering from moderate dementia at the time of those visits, and that her cognitive impairment should have been obvious to anyone who had much interaction with her. That issue seems likely to become key should Lawson be tried on the two felony charges, which carry a possible seven-year prison sentence.
Rocha testified that Lawson helped Kelly reactivate frozen accounts and sought, without success, to facilitate the Jordanian funds transfers. Lawson, Rocha said, assured Kelly’s bankers and brokers that she was competent and that the elderly woman simply wished to be free to do as she pleased with her money.
But Cooper appeared to suggest, through his questioning, that Kelly’s mental problems either arose later than prosecutors claim or would not have been obvious to Lawson based on her limited contact with Kelly.
The tactic seemed to foreshadow the possibility of a contention at trial that Lawson reasonably believed Kelly wanted to befriend the Sabhas by giving them money and that Kelly appeared to Lawson to be competent to make that decision.
In response to a question from Cooper, Rocha acknowledged that the county APS worker who closed the second investigation, in October of 2002, found that while Kelly’s memory might be impaired, her “mind seemed clear.”
But Rocha said the worker also told him her decision to terminate the investigation was due largely to Lawson’s intervention. When Rocha asked her whether it was appropriate to end an inquiry based on representations of competence by an attorney claiming to represent the subject, he explained, the worker told him:
“Well, it was something, and I closed the case.”
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.
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 in May. 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.
Rocha testified yesterday that Ismat Sabha’s nephew also told him of an attempt he made, at his uncle’s instigation, to kill Kelly by running her over with a borrowed car. The attempt failed because the nephew lost his nerve at the last moment, swerving and only slightly injuring Kelly, the investigator explained.
Rocha said the Sabhas made ATM withdrawals from Kelly’s accounts totaling more than $76,000, bought $55,000 in merchandise at Costco using her debit card, and spent $80,000 using the debit card in Jordan.
In documents filed in court before the Sabhas plead guilty, Rocha asserted the Costco purchases appeared to be merchandise that could be resold at their market. Checks written on Kelly’s accounts were also used to make payments to the state Board of Equalization for sales tax owed by the market and to pay the market’s utility bills, Rocha said.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company