The career of one of the nation’s most entrepreneurial, controversial, philanthropic and rich lawyers came to a close Monday, as Melvyn Weiss was sentenced to 30 months in prison for his role in an alleged scheme in which he and his partners used kickbacks to gain an advantage in lucrative cases.
Mr. Weiss pleaded guilty this year to conspiracy in a long-running prosecution of him and his famed law firm, now known as Milberg LLP, in which the government alleged that the lawyers paid kickbacks to clients to serve as name plaintiffs in class actions. The scheme, prosecutors said, allowed Milberg to have a ready stable of plaintiffs that filed cases quickly, enabling the firm to become lead counsel in a case and claim a larger share of the fees.
In handing down a sentence near what prosecutors sought — 33 months — Judge John Walter noted the seriousness of the offense, which he said involved a “nationwide conspiracy that continued for decades.” But the judge, in sentencing him three months shy of the maximum plea term, also appeared moved by Mr. Weiss’s good works and his age, 72.
Some 275 letters in support of Mr. Weiss before the hearing marked “a showing that I don’t think I’ve ever seen” on the bench, the judge said. The letters “attest to the life of an extraordinary man.”
Mr. Weiss was contrite in a statement to the court. “I … apologize to the court for my wrongful conduct,” he said, adding that it was beyond his ability to adequately explain. “My contrition is profound and genuine.” He is to report to prison Aug. 28, in Morgantown, W.Va. The judge also ordered him to pay $10 million in fines and penalties, per his plea agreement.
The sentence marks a dramatic end to a lucrative legal career. Mr. Weiss co-founded his law firm in 1965, helping build it into a securities juggernaut that for a time filed more class actions — and won more settlements — than any other firm. His firm’s success allowed Mr. Weiss to attain considerable wealth — he owns a mansion on Long Island, N.Y., with Picassos and a gambling room. He is a major philanthropist and contributor to Democratic Party politics.
From 1983 to 2005, according to a government filing in the case, Mr. Weiss’s share of firm profits was about $209.9 million.
The Milberg law firm, which used to bear Mr. Weiss’s name, was indicted in 2006, along with former partners David Bershad and Steven Schulman. For a while, it appeared as if Mr. Weiss might avoid the government’s clutches. He wasn’t charged until 2007 and didn’t agree to plead guilty until this past March, well after other major individual defendants had cut plea deals. He resigned from the firm at the same time.
Prosecutor Doug Axel, arguing for the maximum 33-month term set out in the plea agreement, said at the hearing that during the government’s seven-year investigation, Mr. Weiss “hid behind the firm” and failed to come forward and acknowledge his offenses. Judge Walter also noted Mr. Weiss’s failure to “withdraw” from the conspiracy.
But the judge seemed sympathetic to Mr. Weiss, perhaps more so than to his former partner, William Lerach, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy and is currently serving a two-year prison term. Judge Walter sentenced Mr. Lerach to the maximum sentence called for in his plea agreement — and indicated he might have gone higher had the agreement allowed for it.