Wednesday, August 4, 2004
Lawyer Must Stand Trial in Elder Abuse Conspiracy, Judge Rules
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A 66-year-old downtown lawyer must stand trial on felony charges of conspiracy and elder abuse in a plot that swindled an elderly woman out of more than $1 million, a judge ruled yesterday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Norman Tarle said Beatrice Lawson’s “footprints are all over the conspiracy” to steal the savings of Anne Kelly. Lawson is accused of helping two Jordanian immigrants to manipulate the 85-year-old woman, described by a medical expert suffering from probable Alzheimer’s disease, into giving them access to her bank accounts.
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.
Tarle, ruling after a preliminary hearing that took place over four days, rejected the contention of Lawson’s attorney, James P. Cooper III, that it was unreasonable to believe the lawyer would have participated in the plot for a mere $3,000.
Cooper pointed out that prosecutors were able to document only three payments to Lawson from Kelly’s accounts, all between August and October of 2002. The three checks were for $1,500, $800, and $700.
Cooper said there had been no suggestion at the hearing that Lawson charged excessive fees to Kelly. Testimony showed, he noted, that Lawson visited banks and brokerage offices with Kelly in an effort to have freezes on her accounts lifted and contacted county Adult Protective Services workers on her behalf.
But Tarle said it was clear that Lawson’s interventions were not attempts to help Kelly.
“Those transactions went to benefit other people,” the judge declared. Medical and other testimony showed that Kelly was “incompetent and becoming even more so” at the time of Lawson’s contacts with her, and the lawyer “should have been alerted at least to the question” of whether Kelly was competent to handle her financial affairs.
Cooper has also suggested that Kelly’s mental deficiencies were less pronounced, or less obvious, at the time of Lawson’s involvement with her. He pointed out that bank officials and APS workers conducted investigations and failed to determine Kelly was unable to manage her own affairs.
Prosecutors claim Lawson’s interventions stymied those inquiries.
Tarle conceded that Deputy District Attorney Susan Powers failed to establish that the Sabhas, rather than Kelly, secured Lawson’s services.
“How she got into that office is somewhat of a mystery, but it gives one an uncomfortable feeling,” Tarle commented.
Noting that for months the Sabhas raided Kelly’s accounts with nearly daily ATM withdrawals of the maximum amount possible, the judge said it was far from clear that Lawson received no more than $3,000.
“All we know about is the $3,000,” Tarle said, adding that investigators estimated the total amount stolen from Kelly at $1.3 million.
“We don’t know how it was distributed or who got it eventually,” the judge said.
The evidence against Lawson was strong enough to require her to stand trial, Tarle said, though the judge said he “would have other feelings about reasonable doubt” if the matter were tried before him on the same testimony.
Tarle cited the account of Special Agent John Rocha of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who testified he had spoken with a nephew of Ismat Sabha who claimed Lawson knew the full extent of the conspiracy and received numerous cash payments. That testimony “puts the icing on the cake” as far as meeting the preliminary hearing standard, the judge said.
The nephew, who allegedly took part in the plot but was deported before the criminal charges were filed, also told Rocha of an attempt he made, at his uncle’s instigation, to kill Kelly by running her over with a borrowed car, the investigator claimed. Rocha explained that the nephew said the attempt failed because he lost his nerve at the last moment, swerving and only slightly injuring Kelly.
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.
Tarle set Lawson’s arraignment for August 16.
Powers told Tarle her previous plea offer to Lawson will remain open until the arraignment. Lawson, who could be imprisoned for seven years if convicted, will receive three years probation if she agrees to plead guilty to a felony, stipulate that the offense involves moral turpitude, and agree to return the $3,000, Powers explained.
That disposition would bar Lawson from practicing law. She and her brother, Pierpont M. Laidley, currently practice as Laidley & Lawson in offices located on Shatto Place.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company