Bellaire lawyer, 4 others accused of ambulance chasing
By Gabrielle Banks
A prominent Bellaire lawyer with a history in the criminal spotlight and four others were charged in a vast criminal conspiracy case involving allegations of tax evasion, witness tampering and obstruction of justice, and accusing them of barratry, or “ambulance chasing,” and unlawfully soliciting clients through recruiters.
Prosecutors say the kickback scheme was the brainchild of Jeffrey Stern, founding partner of a personal injury firm where, according to its website, he oversees “a team of warriors” who take on wrongdoers and “help fight for equality and justice for those who can’t.” Stern faces prosecution along with two personal injury lawyers, a legal aide and a clinic owner.
Stern is being held in a federal lockup pending a bond hearing Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Bray. He is charged with conspiring to defraud the government, willfully filing multiple false tax returns and aiding in the preparation of those returns. Prosecutors say he then attempted to cover his tracks by tampering with witnesses and obstructing justice.
The tax and barratry case will not be Stern’s first experience as a defendant. The 62-year-old South Texas College of Law graduate was cleared in 2012 of orchestrating three failed murder plots targeting his wife and a 1992 gun charge.
Records show that the State Bar filed six disciplinary matters against him in Harris County dating back to 1992, however none of them stuck. Stern has no public record of discipline by the state bar.
Stern’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
Also facing charges in the federal case is Stern’s employee, attorney Deborah Bradley. She was indicted on charges of filing false returns. She is free on bond. Bradley and lawyer Richard Plezia are also accused of conspiracy to defraud the government.
Plezia has a practice in nearby Hillcroft, where he is founding partner at a catastrophic injury and civil litigation firm. He is expected to make an initial court appearance this week, according to prosecutors.
The trio of Houston personal injury attorneys are charged along with accused “case runners” who helped hustle the clients: Frederick Morris, a legal-assistant and Lamont Ratcliff, a clinic owner. Morris pleaded guilty on Aug. 8 to conspiring to defraud the government. He remains on bond until his sentencing in February. Ratcliff, 44, is also free on bond.
Ratcliff’s lawyer Chip Lewis said the case is bogus and he thinks Stern simply had the “great misfortune” of being a victim of the insurance industry’s pushback against personal injury cases.
“This case is nothing more than Big Insurance’s latest jihad against the Texas Personal Injury Bar,” he said. “Mr. Ratcliff’s clinic proudly serves folks in need of medical treatment. There is nothing nefarious about his business relationship with Mr. Stern or any other lawyer.”
The alleged tax evasion scheme by Stern and his co-defendants relied on the practice of securing personal injury cases through barratry, or illegally soliciting clients by paying kickbacks to middlemen.
Investigators believe the three lawyers concealed the income from the kickback scheme by filing false tax documents with the IRS. Ratcliff is accused of failing to report kickbacks he received as income on the clinic’s tax returns. Stern and Morris, the legal aide who has admitted to the conspiracy, are also charged with causing another lawyer to file false tax returns and help cover up the scheme.
After Stern learned he was under investigation, prosecutors contend he began scrambling to cover his tracks, instructing his crew to destroy documents that federal agents had subpoenaed and telling his co-conspirators not to snitch.
Barratry — which can be filed as both a civil and criminal violation — is not as easy to uncover, according to Claire Reynolds, a spokeswoman with the Texas State Bar.
“To assist us in stopping barratry, we need people to file complaints,” she said. “We work with local law enforcement, but we don’t know about it unless you tells us about it.”