Banker accused of helping sacked lawyerpleaded guilty late Tuesday to wire and bank fraud charges in South Carolina for taking money from legal settlements of clients.
Russell Lafitte, the former CEO of Palmetto State Bank, was allowed to remain free on bail as he awaits sentencing at a later date. The six charges he was convicted of in federal court carry a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison for each.
It was the first trial involving the huge Murdo legal drama that has captivated true-crime audiences.
He is accused of murdering his wife and son and his murder trial is due to begin in January. He also faces nearly 100 other charges, ranging from money laundering to drug offenses to stealing from clients and trying to arrange his death to get his surviving son $10 million in life insurance benefits.
And while Murdaugh, 54, was not in the federal courthouse in Charleston, he was embroiled in Lafitte’s trial.
According to news outlets, Lafitte, 51, did not deny that Murdo’s handling of finances helped the attorney steal from clients, but testified in his defense that he had been defrauded.
When a prosecutor asked Lafitte if he had stolen, he replied “I did, but not intentionally.”
Prosecutors had to prove that Laffitte knowingly participated in the fraud in order to convict him.
Prosecutors said Lafitte knew what he was doing when he effectively acted as Murdaugh’s personal banker and eventually became a court-appointed custodian for the settlement money of many of his underage clients.
Laffitte lent money to the mortician and himself from those settlements in order to divert that money from personal injury or death cases.
In her closing statement, prosecutor Emily Limehouse said Murdaugh had a plan to steal the money, but needed someone organized and detail-oriented to prevent him from being caught easily.
Limehouse said, “None of this would have happened without Alex Murdo, but none of this could have happened without the defendants.”
Through Lafitte’s testimony and other witnesses, defense attorneys tried to show that the banker was trying to follow the instructions of one of his biggest clients and had been lied to and manipulated.
In his closing statement, defense attorney Matt Austin said, “He admits to doing all of this.” “He just doesn’t think he was committing a crime.”
But prosecutors pointed out that Murdaugh was giving Lafitte checks written to the bank rather than to clients, which allowed the lawyer to cash out to people who owed him money, whether it was his law firm or money from other clients. was stealing already or had stolen money from family members.
It also allowed Lafitte to avoid paying taxes.
Laffitte was convicted of one count each of bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy, as well as three counts of misappropriation of bank funds. He also faces 21 counts of financial crimes in state court.
Murdo was barred and Lafitte was fired the previous year.
The Murdo massacre also made appearances at Lafitte’s trial. On June 7, 2021, Murdaugh’s wife Maggie, 52, and their son Paul, 22, were found shot to death with separate guns outside a family home in Colleton County.
An employee of Lafitte’s bank testified that a few hours before the murders, she had spoken to Murdoff about missing fees from one of his cases. Neither the prosecutors in Laffitte’s, nor the investigators in the murders, have mentioned whether they see a link between the incidents.
Murdaugh and Lafitte are both from tiny Hampton County. Murdo’s family law firm dominated the legal community, and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were elected prosecutors for the area for 87 consecutive years.
Laffitte’s family built the Palmetto State Bank, which earned a stellar reputation, leading to being named Banker of the Year in 2019 by the Independent Bank of South Carolina.
And, as is the case in many small towns, their families are close-knit. The law firm employee who confronted Murdaugh about the missing money on the day his wife and son died was Lafitte’s sister-in-law, Jean Seckinger.
More than a third of the witnesses at Lafitte’s trial were his relatives, most of whom were testifying for prosecutors.