A Florida lawyer defrauded, deceived and embezzled funds from two mentally disabled clients who were declared innocent after spending 31 years in prison, according to a complaint filed Wednesday by the North Carolina State Bar.
Henry McCollum and his half-brother, Leon Brown, were exonerated in 2014 after serving decades in prison for the notorious rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. They received $750,000 each from the state in compensation.
The State Bar charged that Orlando lawyer Patrick Megaro took excessive fees when he pocketed a third of each award despite having done virtually no work on their exonerations or compensation cases.
The complaint portrays two vulnerable men—“McCollum and Brown have IQs in the 50s,” the bar wrote—who were exploited by a lawyer required to act in their best interest. The complaint lists 16 separate ethical violations. Megaro allegedly lied to federal and state judges, double-billed his clients and misused trust funds. The complaint says he engaged in fraud by signing off on loans at 42 percent interest and shared legal fees with a non-lawyer. And, the bar alleged, Megaro failed to act with competence as a lawyer by failing to determine a police department’s insurance policy limits before reaching $500,000 settlements.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, McCollum said he’s unhappy with his former lawyer. “He took money that he should have never took,” McCollum said. “I could have that money right now.”
The Marshall Project detailed the brothers’ plight in a story published in partnership with The New York Times.
Megaro did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. His law partner, Jaime Halscott, derided the complaint as meritless. He accused the State Bar, a state agency, of protecting North Carolina from lawsuits that Megaro filed on behalf of McCollum and Brown. Halscott said a settlement or jury verdict in those cases could reach $100 million.
“This is a political prosecution, absolutely,” said Halscott.
The bar complaint actually supports the brothers’ lawsuit by acknowledging that the men are innocent and were wrongly convicted.
Wednesday’s complaint begins a legal process similar to a civil lawsuit that will likely culminate in a public trial of the charges, with three members of the state’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission sitting as judge and jury. The most serious consequence would be disbarment, the likely end of a career for a lawyer. The North Carolina State Bar is required to report any disciplinary results to the other states where Megaro is also licensed to practice law: Florida, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Washington.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the three-person panel of the state bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission.