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Alex Murdaugh. Cory Fleming. Russell Laffitte. They are the known Murdaugh crime saga conspirators, and each stands convicted for their role in a decade-long, multi-million criminal enterprise that has made South Carolina history and worldwide headlines.
Through craft, cunning, and con, this troublesome trio used their power and access as lawyers and bankers to fleece multiple victims in multiple S.C. Lowcountry counties.
And their cases are not done yet, as even behind state and federal prison walls these once-powerful men continue their legal battles through court filings.
This week, Murdaugh has filed a motion that, if successful, could take money the state has put away for his victims, while Fleming has now joined Laffitte in appealing his prison sentence.
Murdaugh asks federal government to seize his assets from state
Convicted family murderer Murdaugh, facing state and federal charges for his financial crimes, pleaded guilty to his federal charges last week even as he awaits trial on his more than 100 state charges. While he has not been sentenced on those federal charges, Murdaugh is expected to be on the hook for a minimum of $7.6 million in restitution, fines and legal fees for his federal crimes alone.
Just four days after a federal judge accepted his guilty plea, Murdaugh's legal defense team, led by Richard Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, filed a motion seeking the "immediate" federal seizure of all of Murdaugh's assets.
But there is a problem: those assets have already been seized by the state courts, and they total much less than $7.6 million.
In the wake of Murdaugh's dozens of ongoing civil suits — including the 2019 Beach wrongful death suit involving a fatal boat crash — and the 100-plus criminal charges, the state court approved a motion by Beach family attorney Mark Tinsley to have Murdaugh's assets seized and placed under control of court-appointed receivers, to be used for restitution or damages to victims, and for court-approved legal costs.
Tinsley represents the family and estate of Mallory Beach, who died in a Beaufort County boat crash involving Murdaugh's boat and his late son, Paul.
What are the grounds of Murdaugh's motion?
The Sept. 25 motion, filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, seeks the "immediate seizure" of Murdaugh's assets from the receivership.
The motion requests the U.S. Marshals Service or other "appropriate federal officers" immediately seize all assets held by Peter M. McCoy and John T. Lay in their capacities as co-receivers for Murdaugh’s assets, aka "The Murdaugh Funds," and place them in the "exclusive custody and control of the United States of America."
Murdaugh's motion asks for a full accounting of these assets by the state and claims that the Murdaugh Funds are "at risk of substantial dissipation and waste without the Court’s immediate action."
The motion points out that the Murdaugh Funds originally constituted $2,163,396.08, but legal fee payouts of $408,153.58 and $253,294.17 to the co-receivers have dwindled the fund. The receivers have also appointed another attorney to serve as a Special Referee for the disbursement of the remaining funds, so these legal fees will increase.
Murdaugh's lawyers claim that legal fees from "expensive private attorneys" will continue to dwindle the Murdaugh Fund that can be paid to victims, whereas "The United States, however, will perform the same function in ancillary proceedings for free."
"It is inappropriate for the asset forfeiture imposed as part of the conviction and sentence for numerous federal felonies to be managed by private attorneys appointed on the motion of private civil litigants in state court proceedings to protect their future contingent interests in civil litigation," Murdaugh's attorneys write.
"This Court convicted Mr. Murdaugh," they further argue. "No other court has convicted Mr. Murdaugh of any financial crime. This Court entered an order for the seizure order of his assets. No other court has instituted any criminal seizure or forfeiture proceedings regarding his assets. It is this Court, therefore, that must control the seizure and forfeiture of Mr. Murdaugh’s assets."
But at least one opposing counsel suggests that this is simply a ploy by Murdaugh's attorneys to get more money for themselves.
Attorneys respond, analyze Murdaugh's motion to seize assets
In December 2022, a state judge approved a request by Murdaugh's attorneys to liquidate his 401k to help pay for his criminal defense during his Spring 2023 murder trial.
In May 2023, following Murdaugh's March 2 double murder conviction, the same judge denied a request from Murdaugh's counsel to use more of those 401k funds to pay for his murder conviction appeal.
Beach family attorney Tinsley, who was instrumental in having Murdaugh's assets seized by the state, contends that if the recent federal motion is approved, Harpootlian and Griffin can then request more of Murdaugh's money for their legal services from the federal government, and not the state.
"This is merely a play to try to undo the deal they made in the state court proceeding to get the money where they want it to go," said Tinsley. "It's also another attempt for the lawyers to get more fees after the state court denied their petition for more fees."
"Alex Murdaugh specifically waived any appeal related to the receivers' taking of his property and as such, it's no longer his. He has no assets in the receivership," Tinsley added. "However, I do believe there are significant questions about whether money was actually paid to or on Alex's behalf for his participation in that Fox Nation piece. Or whether substantial licensing fees were paid for the use of materials. So there may be money that needs to be seized for the real victims, it's just not in the receivership."
Tinsley adds that he and other opposing counsel will not let Murdaugh's money out of state control without a fight, and if they discover the convicted fraudster has more assets out there, they plan to come after them as well.
"We plan on investigating whether such funds have been paid or are owed to Alex or someone else on Alex's behalf and then pursue seizing any such funds."
Another South Carolina attorney with no direct connection to the case agrees with some of Tinsley's thoughts. Mandy Powers Norrell, an Upstate attorney with experience in both civil and criminal law, has spoken to numerous media outlets over the past year to provide objective legal analysis in the Murdaugh cases.
"I think it’s clear to the defense that the state court is likely to prioritize the claims of victims over any potential request to use funds for a legal defense," said Norrell. "It’s less clear how the federal court would rule on such a request because it hasn’t been presented with one. They (Murdaugh's lawyers) likely believe they’d stand a better chance of accessing funds in federal court because - based on the way things have gone when they’ve tried in the past - they stand almost no chance of accessing those funds in state court."
Multiple media outlets reported that during last weekend's CrimeCon event in Orlando, Florida, Murdaugh's attorneys told audiences that their client was out of money, but they would continue to represent him pro bono if needed.
Another Murdaugh legal opponent, attorney Eric Bland, jumped into the fray Tuesday on X (formerly known as Twitter), claiming that the co-receivers have now issued subpoenas to Harpootlian and Griffin seeking to know how much they have really been paid for their representation in all of Murdaugh's legal matters, who paid them, and seeking copies of any media contracts involving Murdaugh.
The court appointed receivers for Alex Murdaugh did something very interesting today. In response to team Murdaugh’s motion to have the federal government seize the funds that the receivers recovered and are supposed to go to Alex Murdaugh’s victims, the receivers finally did… pic.twitter.com/tQVJQJgrR6
— Eric Bland (@TheEricBland) September 26, 2023
As the fight for Murdaugh's money heats up, his co-conspirators are struggling to fight for their freedom - and less time behind prison bars.
Cory Fleming appeals 'unconstitutional" state prison sentence
On Tuesday, convicted Murdaugh co-conspirator Cory Fleming, filed a notice of appeal of his recent state prison sentence with the S.C. Court of Appeals.
Fleming, a former Beaufort attorney and longtime Murdaugh friend, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to 46 months, then pleaded guilty in state court and received an additional 10 years in state prison, to be served after he completes his federal time.
Fleming claims that the state prison sentence, handed down by Judge Clifton Newman, violated the Eighth Amendment regarding excessive, cruel and unusual punishment.
Fleming's motion also contends that before sentencing Newman failed to consider all of the filings offered by Fleming — namely the federal judge's recommendations and federal court transcripts.
Fleming also claims that Newman made several extra-judicial statements before sentencing him, including comparing his case to a recent Colleton County murder case where a mother was sentenced to 37 years for the death of her child.
Fleming points out that prior to sentencing Newman referred to this case as “unimaginable”and “the greatest crime for a lawyer in the history of the State of South Carolina, certainly in the number of years being faced and the impact of the crimes on the citizens of the State."
Fleming also points out that Newman "repeatedly stated that this case was “unprecedented” and that “there’s no way there is a case in this state where the amount of thievery exceeded what’s occurred in this case.”
Finally, Fleming argues that his sentencing was "effected by the bias of the circuit court" and "the notoriety of the related case of State v. Murdaugh, which the circuit judge also presided over, created a spill-over bias in this case."
Former banker Russell Laffitte heads to federal prison
Former Hampton banker and Murdaugh's primary co-conspirator, Russell Laffitte, was convicted on federal fraud and conspiracy charges in November 2022 and in August 2023 was sentenced to seven years of federal prison.
So far, Laffitte's attorneys have been able to delay setting a trial date for his state charges, and even delay him going to federal prison -- until now.
After two appeals of his conviction were denied, Laffiite appealed that seven-year sentence and even requested to delay reporting to prison while that ongoing appeal was being considered. But today, Sept. 27 federal judges denied that request as well.
Laffitte, heir to a prominent Lowcountry banking family, must now report to federal custody on Thursday, Sept. 28, where he is expected to begin serving his federal sentence at FCI Coleman in Florida as his ongoing sentence appeal continues.
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Alex Murdaugh requests federal seizure, Cory Fleming appeals sentence