(Photo by Jason R. Bennitt)
A New Jersey attorney is facing prison time after pleading guilty to bilking elderly clients out of millions of dollars using phony powers of attorney and other fraudulent means.
Barbara Lieberman on Nov. 3 pleaded guilty to one first-degree count of money laundering before Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Michael Donio, and agreed to forfeit $3 million in frozen assets and surrender her law license.
Last March, Lieberman was arrested and charged with targeting elderly people who had substantial assets and no immediate families, in conjunction with a company that was run by a former social worker.
The state Attorney General’s Office alleged that Lieberman, from 2006 through 2013, took control of her clients’ finances by forging power of attorney or obtaining one on false pretenses, then added her name to victims’ bank accounts or transferred assets into her lawyer trust account.
Lieberman was executrix of the wills of some of her clients and continued to siphon off funds from their estates after they died, using the stolen funds to pay off credit card debt in excess of $300,000, prosecutors said. She was also charged with writing checks to herself from her interest on lawyers trust account.
According to the state, Lieberman also regularly presented seminars on wills, living wills and end-of-life affairs for seniors citizens in Atlantic County. At an event at Jeffries Tower, a senior citizen complex in Atlantic City, she met a woman in her 90s who later became her client. The woman had a son and a daughter but Lieberman refused to discuss the woman’s affairs with her children, citing attorney-client privilege. Lieberman stole $320,000 from the woman’s estate after her death, prosecutors charged.
In another case, Lieberman allegedly stole more than $600,000 from a Margate, N.J., woman in her 90s, using half of it to pay her credit card bills. She also allegedly drafted large checks from the woman’s account for personal use. Lieberman also drafted the woman’s will, which bequeathed assets to a friend of the woman who had died 11 months before it was executed, the state said.
Lieberman allegedly conspired with Jan Van Holt, 58, of Linwood, N.J., a former social worker, who also was charged last March. Van Holt was owner of “A Better Choice,” a company that purportedly offered seniors life care and financial planning, including help with household chores, transportation, paying bills and balancing checkbooks.
The state alleged that Lieberman and Van Holt obtained a $195,000 reverse mortgage on the home of a 94-year-old woman from Ventnor, N.J., and stole $112,000 in other assets.
In other cases, Lieberman and Van Holt allegedly stole more than $500,000 from an Atlantic City woman who died at 91; $487,000 from a Margate couple who died at 81 and 85; $109,000 from a Northfield, N.J., woman who died at 92; $72,000 from a Northfield woman who died at 85; $25,000 from an Egg Harbor Township, N.J., woman who died at 90; and $20,000 from an 88-year-old Cape May Court House, N.J., woman.
Prosecutors said the defendants’ mode of operation was to fund the victim’s expenses, sometimes by taking money from other victims, in order to hide their thefts from victims while waiting for them to die.
In addition to money laundering, she was charged with second-degree conspiracy and theft by deception.
In reaching the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to recommend a 10-year prison sentence for Lieberman, 62, of Northfield, N.J., who will have to serve at least three-and-a-half years of that sentence. Sentencing, before Donio, is set for Feb. 3, the attorney general’s office said.
Charges are pending against Van Holt and two alleged co-conspirators: Van Holt’s sister, Sondra Steen, 59, of Linwood, also a principal of A Better Choice; and Susan Hamlett, 55, of Egg Harbor Township, who worked for the company. Van Holt is charged with first-degree money laundering, and one count each of second-degree conspiracy and second-degree theft by deception. Steen and Hamlett each are charged with one second-degree count of theft by deception, according to the state.
Lieberman’s attorney, Pleasantville, N.J., solo Steven Feldman, said his client “wanted to make this right” and “does not want to justify her actions.”
Feldman said once the scheme got rolling, it was difficult for Lieberman to get out.
“She’s actually an excellent attorney,” he added. “She had an error in judgment.”
Acting Attorney General John Hoffman said in a statement that Lieberman “turned the ethical precept that we should honor our elders on its head, heartlessly stealing the money that her unsuspecting clients needed to be able to spend their last days in comfort and dignity.
“Some of her victims were forced into nursing facilities by these thefts because they no longer could afford to live in their homes,” Hoffman added.
Van Holt’s lawyer, David Henderson, of the Atlantic County Public Defender’s Office, didn’t return a call.
Neither did Steen’s counsel, Ocean City, N.J., solo Harold Kokes, nor Hamlett’s counsel, Atlantic City solo Stephen Funk.