Gulfport attorney's $3.5 million theft theft leaves turmoil [The Sun Herald]
(Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 22--By the time Gulfport attorney Woody Pringle committed suicide in December 2010, his secret was out.
After he died, a forensic accountant hired by Pringle's estate combed through financial records that indicated he had stolen about $3.5 million from 29 bank accounts he managed as court-appointed attorney for incompetent adults, juveniles or estates. Money also was missing from the same kinds of accounts he managed for Harrison County Chancery Clerk John McAdams.
The forensic accountant, Stephanie McKay, was unable to access all the financial and court records she needed to discover the extent of Pringle's theft, she said in court records.
McKay recommended in August 2011 that the state Auditor's Office audit the Chancery Court clerk's office.
No audit has been conducted covering all the accounts Pringle managed after he was appointed an officer of the court in 2003.
"It is hard to imagine why no one, including the auditor, has tried to get to the bottom of this," said Bay St. Louis attorney Marcie Baria, who represents one of Pringle's victims. "No one has ever ordered a complete investigation."
Harrison County officials believe they have gotten to the bottom of Pringle's crimes and have put in place legal requirements that McAdams and the court were not following when Pringle stole the money. Attorneys are working to close out all Pringle's cases and a second accountant has reviewed his financial records, said Tim Holleman, attorney for the Harrison County Board of Supervisors.
Further, State Auditor Stacey Pickering said Thursday
his office will ask a Harrison County chancery judge for permission to audit chancery guardianships, conservatorships and estates as part of the 2012 audit of county finances. Pickering said he also plans to select other counties for audits of the court-supervised accounts because of the problems Pringle's misdeeds uncovered.
However, Pickering said, the audit is not intended to cover the years Pringle embezzled money, from at least 2004 until his death.
"What we find when we get in there will dictate a lot of the detail we go into," Pickering said. "How long are you going to stir the soup on the stove?"
Pringle's misdeeds have led to a tangle of lawsuits, most of which remain unresolved.
Woody Pringle was a trusted officer of the court when chancery judges appointed him guardian for juveniles, conservator for incompetent adults and county administrator on estates. He also managed seven court-supervised accounts as attorney for McAdams. Pringle in some cases failed to file legally required annual accountings of the money he managed. When he did, officials later learned, they were sometimes fabricated.
In court records, Baria describes a system Pringle saw he could exploit. She and her husband, state Rep. David Baria, represent one of his victims, an elderly woman named Soon Son Pak who lost her short-term memory to illness. Pringle was appointed conservator of Pak's bank account in 2006. Nobody disputes that he stole $290,000 from her between 2007 and 2009, leaving a balance of $86.46.
A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court on Pak's behalf says Pringle could have been stopped back in 2004, when it was later learned he stole $34,000 from a minor who was McAdams' ward.
"Had McAdams simply looked at the ward's bank statement or filed his annual accounting," the lawsuit says, "Pringle would have been discovered in 2004. ... Pringle was placed on notice -- at least by 2004 -- of McAdams' wholesale abdication of responsibility to abide by the statutory mandates applicable to conservatorships and guardianships in Harrison County, that McAdams was not watching (and was certainly not enforcing or adhering to the law), and the property of wards in Harrison County was free for the taking."
Pak's daughters, who filed the lawsuit on her behalf, have settled their case against attorneys representing the family while Pringle was stealing Pak's money. Holleman believes the Pak family should have been satisfied with the settlement, which was $300,000 to $350,000, he said. The daughters and the Barias are prohibited from discussing terms of the settlement, including any amount paid.
"Neither the county nor McAdams did anything improper whatsoever," said McAdams' attorney, Donald Dornan, who is being paid by Harrison County. "It's a shame that any claim is being made wanting the taxpayers of Harrison County to be responsible for Woodrow Pringle's theft."
Holleman estimates the county has spent $300,000 on the cases.
Victims seek compensation
Pringle spent some of the money he stole on a house in Florida, paying $461,745 cash in 2008. After Pringle's death, McAdams filed claims against the Pringle estate in Florida to recover money he had stolen.
He has placed about $312,000 netted from the sale in the registry of Harrison County Chancery Court. Known victims of Pringle have been notified and given the opportunity to file claims to the money, which is all that apparently remains of what the attorney stole.
Pringle's theft was uncovered after Veterans Affairs repeatedly requested certified bank balances on the accounts of two veterans for whom McAdams served as conservator, court records show.
Nineteen months after the first of numerous VA requests for bank statements, McAdams finally retrieved the bank balances himself. The accounts were all but empty. Records show Pringle had embezzled $240,000 from the veterans.
McAdams summoned Pringle, who was in Florida, to a meeting. Instead, Pringle drove to a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Orlando, where an autopsy later showed the 56-year-old died from consuming toxic levels of alcohol and painkillers.
(c)2013 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)
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