A former New York partner at Winston & Strawn, Jonathan S. Bristol, pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of laundering more than $20 million through his escrow accounts in connection with an alleged multi-million dollar fraud run by Kenneth Starr, a financial advisor to celebrities.
Mr. Bristol, who was a partner at Winston & Strawn until June, shortly after Mr. Starr’s arrest, appeared before Southern District Magistrate Judge Henry Pittman. He was released on his signature but must post a $1 million personal recognizance bond co-signed by three financially responsible parties within a week. One condition for his release is that he undergo a mental health evaluation.
Mr. Bristol appeared with his attorney, Gerard Hanlon of Hanlon Dunn & Robertson of Morristown, N.J. Mr. Hanlon said after the arraignment that Mr. Bristol met with prosecutors two months ago but only became aware last month that he was a probe target.
“Mr. Bristol is a good man and I’m hoping we can do well by him,” Mr. Hanlon said. “It was a difficult day for him and I hope we can reach a good and fair resolution.”
A conference is scheduled for Monday at 10 a.m. before Southern District Judge Deborah A. Batts.
Also yesterday, the Securities and Exchange Commission accused Mr. Bristol of aiding and abetting Mr. Starr’s fraud through the misuse of his attorney trust accounts.
“Bristol had a legal and professional responsibility not to assist Ken Starr in conduct that he knew was unlawful,” George S. Canellos, director of the SEC’s New York regional office, said in a statement. “Bristol crossed the line from lawyer to conspirator when he failed to safeguard funds entrusted to him, helped Starr steal client money, and lied to the victims to perpetuate the scheme.”
The SEC and the Southern District U.S. Attorneys Office are seeking the forfeiture of Mr. Bristol’s property, including $20 million.
Prosecutors in May charged Mr. Starr with stealing at least $30 million from clients. His clientele reportedly included actors Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes and Uma Thurman and director Martin Scorsese.
Mr. Starr, a non-practicing attorney, pleaded guilty in September and admitted to losing $20 million to $50 million of his clients’ funds.
Mr. Bristol served as counsel to Mr. Starr and his financial firms since at least 2007, according to the SEC. Mr. Bristol allowed Mr. Starr to use his attorney trust accounts as a conduit, sending the stolen monies to Mr. Starr despite knowing they belonged to clients, the SEC complaint said. It claims that more than $25 million of Mr. Starr’s clients’ funds went through attorney trust accounts controlled by Mr. Bristol.
Mr. Bristol never disclosed to Winston & Strawn the existence of the accounts, the SEC said. Mail for the accounts was sent to Mr. Bristol’s home address.
Winston & Strawn is not named in either the indictment or the complaint. But the firm confirmed it had employed Mr. Bristol, “who is no longer with us,” a statement said.
“The indictment against him is based on alleged conduct neither authorized by nor known to others at the firm,” Winston & Strawn said in the statement. “The firm is cooperating fully with the authorities investigating this matter.”
Mr. Bristol, a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School, joined Winston & Strawn along with 18 other lawyers in November 2008 following the collapse of Thelen. Winston initially promised to pay Mr. Bristol, a business and finance partner, $1.35 million for his first full two years, the indictment said.
But his practice “was much less lucrative than expected,” according to the U.S. attorney’s indictment, and Mr. Bristol agreed in August 2009 to reduce his compensation to $500,000 plus a bonus if he hit certain thresholds. It was around this time that Mr. Bristol brought in new business from Mr. Starr, business the indictment said would be “important to his compensation” at Winston.
Mr. Starr hired Mr. Bristol and Winston to represent him in an investigation by the SEC. Mr. Starr also had hired Mr. Bristol for a dispute with one of his clients regarding an improper investment. Mr. Bristol at the time knew Mr. Starr was engaged in illegal activity, the indictment said.
Winston & Strawn billed more than $1 million for the work, which was important to Mr. Bristol “during an otherwise difficult legal market,” the SEC complaint said.
But Mr. Starr did not timely pay his bills. After Winston & Strawn pressured Mr. Bristol in February 2010 to collect on unpaid fees, a $100,000 check arrived, according to the federal indictment.
The funds were not from Mr. Starr but was money laundered through the escrow accounts, federal authorities said.
Mr. Bristol frequently allowed Mr. Starr to use his attorney trust accounts as conduits to steal client money, federal authorities said. Mr. Bristol in late 2009 allowed Mr. Starr to divert $1.15 million from two Starr client accounts to one of Mr. Bristol’s escrow accounts. Mr. Bristol then transferred the funds to a Starr & Company bank account.
In 2009, Mr. Starr entered into a $4 million settlement with a former client. To pay the settlement, Mr. Starr in January 2010 stole money from existing clients, including an unnamed ex-talent agency executive and a film producer. The funds were wired into Mr. Bristol’s escrow account, and he in turn wired them to the former client. Mr. Bristol knew the source of the funds, the indictment said.
The talent executive in March learned $1 million had been transferred out of his or her account. When the executive reached Mr. Bristol, he claimed the money was being bundled with four other investors for a larger $5 million investment, the indictment said.
Mr. Bristol also used the escrow accounts in February 2010 to assist Mr. Starr’s theft of $1.5 million from the account of the wealthy ex-wife of a businessman to cover operating expenses at Starr & Company, Mr. Starr’s firm, according to the indictment.
In April 2010, Mr. Starr stole more than $7 million from four clients and forwarded the money to Mr. Bristol’s escrow account, the indictment said. Mr. Bristol then allegedly transferred the money to complete Mr. Starr’s purchase of an Upper East Side apartment.
Shortly afterward, several of Mr. Starr’s clients discovered he had misappropriated their funds. An unnamed actress reached out to Mr. Bristol complaining about $1 million taken out of her account without permission. Mr. Bristol allegedly replied that he thought the money belonged to Mr. Starr and promised to wire it back but that he would need to go to a New Jersey bank, claiming it was the fastest way.
Mr. Starr then diverted $1 million from a different client’s account to the escrow account. Mr. Bristol allegedly then wired the funds to the actress, the indictment said.
Mr. Hanlon said after the arraignment, “With cases like this, you have to have the requisite knowledge to understand what was going on.” Mr. Starr “must be one slick-talking smooth operator because he fooled a lot of people,” he said.
Speaking of his client’s departure from Winston & Strawn, Mr. Hanlon said, “That’s a good law firm. There’s too much to be lost if you have a partner under a cloud.”
Mr. Canellos, a former partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, is overseeing the SEC’s case against Mr. Bristol. Sanjay Wadhwa, Maureen Lewis, Timothy Casey, and Sandeep Satwalekar of the SEC’s market abuse unit in New York are conducting the agency’s ongoing investigation, while senior trial counsel Todd Brody is in charge of the civil litigation.
Southern District Assistant U.S. Attorneys William Harrington, Michael Bosworth and Michael Lockard represents the prosecution.
The criminal case before Judge Batts is United States v. Bristol, 10cr1239. The civil suit, Securities and Exchange Commission v. Starr, 10cv4270, is before Judge Sidney H. Stein.