A former Jersey City solo practitioner was convicted Wednesday of charges that he stole more than $1.5 million from clients over a period of more than a decade.
A Hudson County jury found Joseph Talafous Jr., 55, of Toms River, New Jersey, guilty of three counts of theft by unlawful taking, three counts of theft by failure to make required disposition of property received, five counts of misapplication of entrusted property, two counts of theft by deception, and four counts of filing fraudulent state income tax returns. All of the convictions were for offenses of the second or third degree.
The verdict followed a six-week trial before Superior Court Judge Mirtha Ospina in Jersey City. The charges carry a term of five to 10 years in state prison. Sentencing is set for Feb. 16.
His attorney, Gerald Miller of Miller, Meyerson & Corbo in Jersey City, said Talafous plans to appeal.
Prosecutors said Talafous used a power of attorney to make unauthorized withdrawals of thousands of dollars from the investment account of an elderly client who lived in Jersey City and from the client’s estate after the client died in 2010.
Talafous was also convicted of stealing approximately $461,000 from a trust set up for the benefit of a young boy in 2005 with funds from a wrongful death suit stemming from the death of his father. The father died in 2001 in a workplace accident when the child, a West New York resident, was still an infant.
He was also convicted of stealing approximately $300,000 from the estate of an elderly Jersey City woman who died in 2009 without any immediate family. She had hired him to prepare her will and had named him executor of her estate.
And he stole approximately $400,000 from the estate of a Jersey City man who died in 2012 and whose family hired Talafous as attorney for the estate, which included several life insurance policies worth a total of more than $870,000.
Finally, from 2012 to 2015, Talafous stole $330,000 that was entrusted to him as counsel for the estate of a Jersey City woman who owned property in New York.
The case was referred to the Division of Criminal Justice by the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics. The Supreme Court of New Jersey revoked Talafous’ license to practice law by consent in August 2015.
“Lawyers have a duty to uphold the law and protect the interests of their clients, but Talafous treated his law license like a license to steal, sinking to the point of stealing nearly half a million dollars from a young boy who lost his father,” Attorney General Christopher Porrino said in a statement. “This verdict will send Talafous to prison, where he belongs for his deplorable conduct. I commend our attorneys, detectives and entire trial team for building a strong case and skillfully presenting it at trial.”
“This verdict sends a strong message that lawyers who abuse their licenses and break the law will face stern punishment,” Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice said in a statement. “We will not tolerate lawyers who steal from their clients.”
But Miller, the defense attorney, said Talafous has continued to deny the charges and maintained that he did not take any funds he was not entitled to. “There are substantial grounds to appeal,” Miller said, citing evidentiary rulings during trial.
Talafous’ charges originally included money laundering in the first degree, but that charge was dismissed by the Appellate Division in June 2017.
The Appellate Division said evidence that Talafous used his trust and business accounts to facilitate the alleged thefts by itself didn’t support the charge of money laundering, the only first-degree offense among the 19 counts with which he was charged.
In that ruling, the appeals court said the money laundering statute is intended to be construed broadly to serve its purposes, but it requires proof of something more than an underlying crime.
“The State presented no evidence that the theft was concealed (as opposed to committed) through placement of the money in defendant’s accounts,” the Appellate Division said.
Deputy Attorneys General Janet Bosi and Brandy Malfitano tried the case for the state.