Sunday, January 13, 2019

Stealing From His Widowed Mother Gets Attorney Disbarred

A summary of a recent disbarment from the web page of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers

On July 21, 2015, Joseph P. Bernardo (respondent) was convicted after a bench trial in the Pittsfield District Court of larceny over $250 by a single scheme in violation of G.L. c. 266, § 30(1), a felony. He was sentenced to one year in the house of correction. His conviction was upheld by the Appeals Court on June 20, 2017.

The respondent’s conviction was based on the following facts. The respondent represented his elderly mother in obtaining Veterans Administration benefits to which she was entitled as the widow of a combat veteran. The respondent became the representative payee of his mother’s account into which the monthly benefit payments were deposited. From August of 2012 through January of 2013, the respondent wrote numerous checks from the account for his own benefit totaling at least $21,000 without his mother’s knowledge or consent.


The parties waived hearing before the Court and assented to disbarment as recommended by the board. On December 14, 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County (Lowy, J.) so ordered.

The Berkshire Eagle reported on the conviction.

 A Canton man has been sentenced to a year in jail for stealing more than $20,000 in Veterans Affairs benefits from his 97-year-old mother, who resided in assisted living facilities in the Berkshires until her death.

Joseph Bernardo, 67, was convicted on Tuesday after a three-day bench trial in Central Berkshire District Court.

Prosecutors accused him of abusing his role as his mother's attorney and representative payee for Veterans Affairs and Social Security benefits and taking $21,329 for his own use.

Bernardo testified that the payments were for his services as her attorney in applying for the Veterans Affairs benefits, and that she still reaped a net benefit thanks to his work. She has since died.

The investigation into Bernardo began in June 2013 when his mother, Lucy Bernardo, notified Elder Services that her son had not been paying for her care, resulting in her eviction from the Melbourne Place assisted living facility. Elder Services, in turn, notified the Pittsfield Police Department.

During her stay at Melbourne Place, Lucy Bernardo racked up about $23,000 in unpaid rent, according to the criminal complaint filed by Pittsfield Police. Her niece stepped in and helped her move to the Devonshire Estates assisted living facility in Lenox.

Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Dana Parsons portrayed Bernardo as a dispassionate son, going as far as to point out that he did not hold a funeral for his mother and did not claim her ashes for about a year after she died.

Parsons methodically pored over each of the duties Bernardo claimed to have performed on behalf of his mother, questioning why many of them — such as obtaining a copy of her birth certificate — required legal assistance at all.

Bernardo, an attorney in Massachusetts for 35 years, testified that he gave his mother a discount on his services, knocking down the price from $300 per hour to $150. He maintained there was a complexity to obtaining the benefits, including writing an essay on behalf of his mother.

In advocating for a one-year direct jail sentence, Parsons blasted Bernardo for abusing his position of trust both as the victim's son and as an attorney.

"He should be held to a higher level of ethical trust," Parsons said.

Parsons said that Lucy Bernardo has "spent her life saving and being frugal," but that Bernardo "squandered" her money to his own benefit.

In asking for probation, defense attorney Joseph G. Vosit argued that Bernardo's 35-year career as an attorney is "unblemished," and noted his client's efforts produced $40,000 in veterans benefits for his mother.

"I know in his heart he feels all he ever did was try to help his mother," he said.

Judge Michael Ripps ruled that Bernardo was guilty of a single count of larceny over $250 by a single scheme and sentenced him to a year in the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction.

At Vosit's request, Ripps delayed the start of the sentence for two weeks while Bernardo sets his affairs in order.

Bernardo sat quietly after the verdict was read and did not appear to show emotion.

(Mike Frisch)

Bar Discipline & Process | Permalink


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