Monroe Mayor Friday Ellis did not know about a recent $2-million judgment against a local attorney for defrauding a blind client before the mayor honored the attorney with a civil rights award last month, a city spokesperson says.
Last October, a local judge imposed the money judgment against Monroe attorney Stephen “Steve” Jefferson. Jefferson previously admitted to stealing more than $1.8 million from a client after the client sued him in 2018 for co-mingling funds and committing malpractice.
In November 2020, the state Supreme Court suspended Jefferson's law license.
At the city of Monroe's 42nd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Salute on Jan. 14, Ellis honored Jefferson with the James Sharp Jr. Justice award. At the ceremony, Ellis described Jefferson as a “trailblazer for civil rights in Monroe.”
After accepting the award, Jefferson indicated he had initially questioned why the mayor gave him the recognition, unless it was simply to acknowledge his past work experience with the man for whom the award was named. James Sharp Jr. handled a number of civil rights cases in the mid- to late 20th century. His sons include Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Alvin Sharp and former judge Carl Sharp.
“I don't really know what I've done to deserve this award,” said Jefferson at the ceremony. “I had the pleasure of practicing law with James Sharp Jr. for probably over 30 years. I started practicing law in 1973 here in Ouachita Parish. James, at that time, might have been the only black attorney in Monroe.
“It was a pleasure to deal with him because James was easy to deal with. I didn't have that many cases with him, but when I did, I knew I was in good hands because James always did what he said he was going to do. You can't say that today about attorneys.”
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which is the prosecutorial arm of the state Attorney Disciplinary Board, filed the petition asking the Supreme Court to temporarily suspend Jefferson. On Nov. 18, 2020, the Supreme Court granted the interim suspension for threat of harm.
Jefferson has since filed a motion asking for a new trial after Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Robert Johnson found the attorney committed legal malpractice, fraud and theft of client funds, and imposed the $2-million judgment in October 2020.
Earlier this week, Michelli Martin, Ellis' communications director, claimed the mayor and others involved in the MLK ceremony's award nomination process were unaware of Jefferson's legal troubles.
“Steve Jefferson was nominated by a member of the MLK Celebration Committee,” Martin said. “At the time of his nomination, the committee was unaware of his legal issues. Mr. Jefferson did not divulge that information when he was notified of his nomination. The committee and Mayor Friday Ellis, like most of the community, didn’t learn of his situation until after the awards were given out.”
The accusations against Jefferson first surfaced in a May 2018 lawsuit filed by Joseph Bartucci Jr. In his lawsuit, Bartucci claimed he retained Jefferson to represent him in several legal endeavors, beginning in 1991. Jefferson previously represented Joseph Bartucci Sr. from 1984 to his client's death in 1991, according to the lawsuit.
In light of Bartucci's blindness and diminished mental faculties, Bartucci gave Jefferson power of attorney to act exclusively on his behalf in 2009.
Bartucci said he began to worry about whether Jefferson was actually handling legal matters for him. In one instance, Bartucci claimed Jefferson admitted to keeping some $165,000 for himself instead of redirecting the settlement proceeds.
“Jefferson admitted that there were other lawsuits that he had resolved for Bartucci but that Jefferson had not yet paid Bartucci the funds from those settlements and could not pay Bartucci those funds because Jefferson had spent the funds,” stated Bartucci's lawsuit.
In another instance, Jefferson misled Bartucci by having him sign a contract establishing a joint venture gambling business only to find out later the document was a loan requiring Bartucci to repay money to the other parties, according to the lawsuit. The other parties were identified in the court document as Doyle Wayne Boyd and his wife, Martha, through their attorney, Marshal Sanson, of Monroe.
Bartucci also claimed Jefferson failed to initiate divorce proceedings after four marriages, as requested, resulting in Bartucci's marriage to more than one woman at a time.
In May 2020, while representing Bartucci in the lawsuit against Jefferson, Columbia attorney James Carroll filed a motion for summary judgment. The motion included a statement of undisputed facts declaring Jefferson had “committed multiple acts of malpractice, fraud and larceny” while representing Bartucci.
“Jefferson, as the attorney for the Bartucci Family Trust, misappropriated trust funds by removing them from the Trust and co-mingled said funds with this law office and personal funds,” Carroll wrote. “Jefferson altered Plaintiff's will, naming himself as Plaintiff's sole heir and attorney for the estate.”
Carroll's statement of undisputed facts was based on a Oct. 16, 2017 affidavit signed by Jefferson admitting to a number of offenses.
For example, Jefferson said he handled “a lawsuit or threat of a lawsuit against the Horseshoe Casino in which I negotiated a settlement and kept the funds without disbursing to Mr. Bartucci.”
“Mr. Bartucci suffers from physical disabilities (brain damage, seizures, strokes, heart issues and he is blind),” Jefferson said in his affidavit. “He hired me as his attorney to handle investment and distributions of his family trust to distribute funds for his living expenses. While performing these duties, I comingled $1,187,000 of these funds with my personal and firm accounts and those funds are now unaccounted for.”
Jefferson also said he destroyed Bartucci's medical records or allowed them to be destroyed.
Following Johnson's judgment against Jefferson, the attorney filed a motion for a new trial on Oct. 12, 2020.
Though Jefferson filed the motion for a new trial, a court transcript shows he participated in a Sept. 23, 2020 court hearing when the judge ordered that damages be set at $2 million. Jefferson did not object at that time.
According to Jefferson's motion for a new trial, he was entitled to a new trial because Johnson's $2-million judgment was imposed without any receipts “of any evidence of the general damages” claimed by Bartucci.
Court documents indicate Jefferson has sent “hundreds of checks” to Bartucci in an effort to “make things right.” According to Bartucci's May 27, 2020 affidavit, Jefferson had paid Bartucci at least some $1.3 million as of December 2019.
According to Jefferson, Bartucci failed to specify the amounts owed him by Jefferson in specific settlements mentioned in the lawsuit, settlements that Jefferson negotiated on behalf of Bartucci.
“The award of damages of $2,000,000 was unsupported in any respect,” stated Jefferson's memorandum in support of a motion for a new trial. “The record does not reveal which claims were the basis for the award and it does not support damages for any of the claims. Accordingly, New Trial should be granted and the summary judgment should be set aside.”
Jefferson is represented by Thomas “Tom” Hayes III, an attorney with the Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio law firm in Monroe.