A federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced Melvyn Weiss, the co-founding partner of Milberg, to 30 months in prison on Monday.
U.S. District Judge John Walter of the Central District of California said it was "difficult to reconcile" Weiss' numerous charitable contributions with his criminal conduct, which "strikes directly at the core and heart of the judicial system."
Weiss is set to report to prison on Aug. 28. His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, of Brafman & Associates, asked that Weiss serve his sentence at a men's minimum security facility in Morgantown, W.V.
Under a plea deal reached earlier this year, Weiss agreed to forfeit $9.75 million and pay a $250,000 fine. At Monday's hearing, Walter ordered Weiss to pay $5 million of the forfeiture within the next seven days; the remaining is due in 180 days.
"I want to apologize to my family, to my professional colleagues and people within the organization that I built over the last 45 years," said Weiss, who bowed his head during most of the hearing. He said his "contrition is profoundly genuine" and that his punishment great, given he would lose his "life's passion and my ability to earn a living as a professional."
After the hearing, Brafman said he had anticipated Walter to sentence Weiss to 33 months. "Accordingly, we're pleased that the court recognized the extraordinary life of Mr. Weiss and counted it in the sentencing analysis."
Prosecutors allege that Milberg and seven of its partners, including Weiss, obtained $251 million in attorney pay fees by paying $11 million in illegal kickbacks to lead plaintiffs.
On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors are close to a $75 million settlement with Milberg, which faces an August trial. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Douglas Axel and Richard Robinson, prosecutors in the case, declined to comment on the settlement talks.
A lawyer for Milberg, Bryan Daly, a Los Angeles partner at Mayer Brown, declined to comment on the talks beyond stating that "settlement discussions are ongoing."
In April, Weiss pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering conspiracy charge, admitting he lied to judges and secretly paid kickbacks to plaintiffs, in cash or through intermediary law firms, as part of a criminal enterprise that lasted 25 years.
He also agreed to serve 18 to 33 months in prison, with the option of home or community confinement for no more than half the sentence.
In recent weeks, Brafman, noting that Weiss would be 73 next month and citing his numerous charitable contributions, had been seeking a sentence of 18 months. More than 275 letters were submitted by former judges, law professors and lawyers -- a collection that Brafman referred to at Monday's hearing as a "breathtaking array of extraordinary work."
Brafman called Weiss "one of the greatest lawyers of this generation" and "one of the legal giants of the bar." In reiterating Weiss' charitable work, which involved helping the victims of the Holocaust and Sept. 11, he asked Walter for lenience in his sentence.
Prosecutors in the case had backed a pre-sentencing report recommending 33 months.
At the hearing, Axel said that Weiss was "right in the thick of this conspiracy" and that, by refusing a plea deal, "he put the firm in the firing line in order to avoid responsibility for his own actions."
Walter questioned the relevance of Axel's arguments.
In reaching his decision, Walter said there was "no question that Mr. Weiss's charitable and civic work was extensive," and acknowledged that the letters were among the most impressive he had seen in his career.
But he said he was troubled about Weiss' conduct during a November 2003 meeting at which kickback payments were discussed with a lawyer for one of the lead plaintiffs, Howard Vogel. In court papers, prosecutors had said that meeting, which took place during the government's investigation, showed "criminal arrogance" on the part of Weiss.
Brafman, in court papers, had countered that the meeting was the result of bad judgment.
"I do have concerns of Mr. Weiss's conduct after the government's investigation became known," Walter said at the hearing. Specifically, he said, Weiss had been subpoenaed a few months prior to that meeting to provide documents related to a kickback to another lead plaintiff, Steve Cooperman, which was disguised as a phony art option. With such information, Walter concluded, "all the facts just don't pass muster."
Both Cooperman and Vogel have pleaded guilty in the case.
But, at the hearing, Walter appeared to agree with Brafman that the testimony of Vogel's lawyer was unbelievable.
Brafman also had attacked the government's reliance on testimony by two other partners, David Bershad and Steven Schulman, both of whom have pleaded guilty in the case.
Regarding the sentence, Brafman compared Weiss' age to that of William Lerach, another former partner, who, now 62, was sentenced in February to 24 months, the maximum allowable under a plea deal he reached with prosecutors
last year. Lerach, who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, agreed to pay $8 million in fines and forfeitures and reported to prison last month. As at Lerach's sentencing hearing, Walter called the conduct of the defendant in the case one of the most serious crimes of the court and said he had "serious reservations" about accepting the plea deal. But he disagreed with Brafman that Weiss' sentence should, at the worst, mirror that of Lerach's. Weiss, he said, "was one of the key players if not the architect of the criminal scheme."
Unlike Lerach, Weiss did not withdraw from the conspiracy after the government's investigation began, Walter said. Further, Weiss obstructed the investigation, he said.