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Law Practice Management

Law Firm’s ‘Boy Wonder’ Took $30M, But Exactly Why Still Isn’t Clear

Posted Jun 18, 2009 7:03 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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James "Jamie" Perdigao didn't even spend the nearly $30 million he bilked from his law firm and gaming clients there, so it was easy for the former star partner of Adams and Reese to make full restitution when he was finally caught. In fact, an extra $6 million seized by the feds has so far gone unclaimed, according to authorities.

Neither the law firm nor the clients Perdigao overbilled in fictitious statements that never went through Adams and Reese's accounting department apparently had any suspicion. But when neither he nor his secretary was in one day, a temp routed a client billing inquiry to the firm's accounting department. No records could be found there of the bill or related documentation, and further questioning uncovered the fraud, reports the American Lawyer in a lengthy article about the disgraced attorney.

Told on the Friday before Labor Day of 2004 not to return to the firm's New Orleans offices, Perdigao was captured on building surveillance cameras that weekend removing about 60 boxes of files, the legal publication recounts. When the next business week began on Tuesday, he faxed his resignation to the firm and admitted misappropriating funds.

At first it seemed that $1 million might be involved. Then, after a series of meetings, Perdigao agreed to reimburse the firm $9 million. When the FBI looked into the situation, however, it became clear that the former partner had transferred $19 million to a Swiss bank even as he was negotiating with Adams and Reese about reimbursement.

How did a top-billing partner once referred to as the firm's "boy wonder" get into this situation? The bizarre case became even more unfathomable in subsequent years as Perdigao accused others of complex wrongdoing in an apparent fiction reminiscent of a John Grisham legal thriller.

At one point, he retained counsel and filed a tort action asserting seemingly baseless racketeering claims; it was dismissed after Perdigao was criminally charged for hacking into his now-former firm's computer system. Allegedly, he did so, at least in part, in order to attempt to create a false paper trail authorizing his billing activities.

When Perdigao finally pleaded guilty in 2008 to 30 counts of bank fraud, money laundering and tax evasion, he admitted unauthorized withdrawals of $23 million from the firm between 1991 and 2004, according to a case summary that he signed. He also agreed to pay $23.5 million in restitution to Adams and Reese and other entities including the Internal Revenue Service, American Lawyer reports.

He was sentenced to serve 15 years and eight months in prison, with no chance of parole. Perdigao declined to talk with American Lawyer, but friends and colleagues described him as a nice guy and notorious miser who wore rumpled suits, drove a beat-up car and still lived in the same $500-a-month apartment he had had since graduating from law school.

Now 47, Perdigao graduated from Tulane University School of Law and had worked at Adams and Reese since joining the firm as a first-year associate in 1987. He grew up in a well-to-do family; his father is a psychiatrist. However, his parents' divorce when he was a teenager affected him profoundly, the magazine writes, and he apparently began to worry then that it would leave him destitute.

His descent into a stupendous life of fraud began, according to federal prosecutors and court filings, with his padding of legitimate bills while he was still an associate. Then he began sending fictitious bills to clients, for his own services and those of other lawyers, along with envelopes addressed to himself.

He collected the payments personally from the firm's mail room, and deposited them into the firm's trust account. Funds were then paid from the trust account to entities Perdigao controlled. Eventually, he brazenly endorsed these client checks on the firm's behalf and deposited them into his own personal accounts, the magazine reports. (Adams and Reese is suing at least one bank involved for allowing Perdigao to do so; the bank denies any liability.)

Clients apparently didn't notice the overbilling; a lawyer for one Adams and Reese client who is now suing the firm tells American Lawyer that it was difficult to catch some $5 million in inflated and ficititious bills allegedly sent by Perdigao among the millions in legitimate bills the client received. The law firm's managing partner declined to be interviewed by the magazine about the case, but says in an e-mail to American Lawyer that Perdiago's "elaborate crimes" evaded controls that have otherwise served the Adams and Reese well over the years.

A little insight into his crimes was offered by Perdigao himself, in a letter he wrote to the sentencing judge, the magazine recounts:

"My life was my work. On most nights for many years, I left the office after the night cleaning crew. I never bought a house, never married, never had children," he says. Then, when his wrongdoing finally came to light, he reverted into corporate defense lawyer mode, he writes, which had taught him "to deflect the focus of the charges and allegations against my clients by raising all sorts of misdirections, counterpoints, and counterclaims, which did not necessarily have any basis in fact."

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Ex-Partner at La. Law Firm Gets 15 Years in Bizarre $30M Fraud Case"

ABAJournal.com: "Bond Revoked for La. Lawyer Accused in $30M Law Firm Theft and Hacking Cases"

ABAJournal.com: "Indicted Lawyer Files RICO Suit Against Former Firm"

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