United States Attorney’s Office, Middle District of Georgia, October 19, 2021
COLUMBUS, Ga. – A former Columbus-based attorney was sentenced to federal prison and was ordered to pay $1.6 million in restitution for mail fraud after a U.S. Secret Service investigation revealed he had stolen a settlement fee from two clients in a personal injury case.
George W. Snipes, 68, of Columbus, was sentenced to serve 51 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release by U.S. District Clay Land after he previously pleaded guilty to mail fraud. In addition, Judge Land ordered Snipes to pay $1,638,000 in restitution to the victims. There is no parole in the federal system.
“George Snipes violated his sworn oath as a lawyer and committed a federal crime when he made the choice to divert money intended for his injured clients into his own pocket,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Peter D. Leary. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office, along with our law enforcement partners, will hold individuals who lie and defraud people accountable for their crimes.”
“The United States Secret Service along with its law enforcement partners remain committed to aggressively investigative those responsible for defrauding victims the way Snipes did. Not only did he violate the trust of his clients but the oath he swore to uphold as an attorney,” said Clint Bush, United States Secret Service, Resident Agent in Charge, Albany, Georgia, Resident Office.
According to court documents, Snipes was a licensed attorney in Georgia, representing clients in personal injury cases. Two clients, injured in an automobile accident in August 2017, retained Snipes to represent them on a contingency fee basis in connection with their injuries and wages lost as a result of the accident. In September 2017, without the clients’ authorization or knowledge, Snipes settled the case with an insurance company for $48,000, and the settlement checks were sent to Snipes per his request. Snipes used the money for his own personal benefit. Snipes now admits he willfully participated in a scheme to defraud and obtain money by materially false pretenses by placing in an authorized depository for mail a request for funds for the payment of the two clients’ medical expenses and lost wages, knowing that the expenses would not be paid to the intended recipients.
In addition, records obtained from Snipes’ Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (“IOLTA”) from the same general period show a pattern of illegal distributions to Snipes. Essentially, all attorneys are required to maintain IOLTA accounts that accumulate interest until such time as distributions are made to clients or otherwise authorized recipients. Attorneys are not permitted to withdraw funds from these accounts without consulting with and gaining permission from their clients. From at least January 2017 to January 2018, there were numerous unauthorized distributions from this IOLTA account, including personal distributions to Snipes, payments to a rental company he owned, distributions to Parent-Teacher Associations and storage facilities. During this same time period, withdrawals from the IOLTA account made to “cash” totaled $468,750. There were also numerous checks written to Snipes totaling $167,600.
This case was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service and the Columbus Police Department.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melvin Hyde prosecuted the case.