Lawyer facing jail over $6 million fraud
A disgraced lawyer who funnelled millions of dollars from the estates of deceased elderly clients and splurged on a luxury eastern suburbs home is set to be sent to jail, a court has heard.
Mark Leo O'Brien, 64, and his wife Therese O'Brien, 63, hung their heads as the Downing Centre District Court on Thursday heard details of how they misappropriated more than $6.1 million from his Edgecliff-based law firm over a three-year period.
O'Brien's house of cards came crashing down in early 2019 when he was confronted by a fellow partner at his firm Harrington, Maguire and O'Brien after they became suspicious of his purchase of a $3.4 million four-bedroom, four bathroom Bondi home.
He has pleaded guilty to 11 charges including dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception and knowingly dealing with the proceeds of crime.
His wife has also pleaded guilty to knowingly dealing with the proceeds of crime after he confessed he had misappropriated the money from two clients but she did not report it to authorities.
O'Brien has admitted to moving money from his law firm's trust accounts into his personal bank accounts from August 2015 to July 2018.
The money belonged to two deceased clients, much of it bequeathed to charities, however O'Brien used it to pay off two mortgages on his North Bondi unit as well as purchase another home in Bondi in 2018 along with $250,000 worth of renovations and furniture.
The court heard on Thursday the Bondi home had since been sold and Mr O'Brien had paid back the principal amount of $6.1 million that he had misappropriated.
"If you steal money and put it on the last at Randwick, they lose, there's nothing to recover," Judge Robert Sutherland said.
"But if they buy a $3 million house and per chance it goes up in value, there's something to recover."
O'Brien's barrister Christopher Watson told the court his client was likely facing a custodial sentence and argued his offending was motivated by a want to provide for his family.
"There was an aspect of him wanting that to be a provider and a good provider," Mr Watson said.
"And satisfy that feeling of depression when his ability had been challenged to be a good provider for his wife and family."
But Judge Sutherland said O'Brien was spurred on to fleece over $4.67 million from a deceased client from November 2017 to July 2018 because he got away with a similar scheme in 2015.
According to an agreed statement of facts, O'Brien's stealing began in August and September 2015 when he took $1.5 million - which had been left by a client to several charities including the St Vincent de Paul Society - and used it to pay the remaining $220,000 on his North Bondi unit.
He admitted to police that at the time he had $211 in his personal bank account.
He placed another $1 million into a self-managed superannuation fund.
According to court documents, when O'Brien told his wife about his scheme she was "horrified" and during an argument told him to "put it back".
However, he told police that she soon "fell in with that proposal, so that's what we did".
Asked later by police about whether she was comfortable with spending money that had been stolen, Therese O'Brien said: "No. Well, I guess I was, because I did it."
When the couple decided to put their North Bondi home on the market, O'Brien again began stealing from another client.
He used his power of attorney over her bank account in late 2017 to move $155,000 into his accounts.
Before her death in January 2018, the woman appointed O'Brien the executor of her $6.6 million estate.
In mid 2018, he deposited further cheques for $1.77 million and $2.74 million - which had been left for the St Vincent de Paul Society - into his personal accounts.
O'Brien went to great lengths to cover his tracks, creating fake entries in his law firm's ledger and forging letters and receipts from various charities.
They used the money to buy and renovated their Woodstock Street, Bondi home.
Therese O'Brien initially objected to her husband stealing the money.
"You can't do this Mark, you did it before, you can't do it again," she told him.
However she later made several purchases at furniture and homeware stores, with her husband later telling police they spent about $40,000 on furniture.
Both will be sentenced on March 12.
Originally published as Lawyer facing jail over $6 million fraud