A disbarred Garden City civil rights lawyer who stole about $800,000 from his clients told a judge on Wednesday he’d disgraced himself and was ready for punishment.
“I spent my whole life helping people . . . I destroyed all that,” Steven Morelli, 61, said at his Nassau County Court sentencing as his family looked on tearfully.
“I know I did wrong and I’m sincerely sorry for that . . . I beg the forgiveness of my clients, those ones that I hurt,” the former Manhasset resident added, saying he had a “heavy heart.”
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Helene Gugerty acknowledged Morelli’s remorse. But she told Morelli, in sentencing him to 2 1⁄2 to 7 1⁄2 years in prison for his conviction on multiple grand larceny charges, that he had dishonored not only himself, but the legal profession.
“The bottom line is that your transgression has affected not only your family and your friends personally, but many of the people who relied on you as an attorney to help them,” the judge said.
Gugerty ordered Morelli to repay the rest of the stolen funds, after his attorney, Marc Gann, told the court his client already had paid back about $200,000.
The Mineola defense attorney said Morelli had provided “significant, critical help” to many of his former clients, while raising a family of six biological children with his wife and adopting a seventh child.
Gann also read a letter that Morelli’s adoptive son wrote to the judge. It said Morelli took him in when he was 18 and living in a group home, and credited his father with saving him from a life on the streets and giving him a future that included a college education.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” the letter said in part.
But the Nassau district attorney’s office has said Morelli stole from more than 20 clients and treated their settlement money “as his personal piggy bank,” spending it on himself and his law practice.
Police said a 2015 complaint from one of Morelli’s clients sparked a probe, leading to his arrest in March 2016 on charges connected to the theft of about $200,000 he had won in civil settlements for four clients. Morelli told one suspicious client “the check was probably lost in the mail,” police said at the time of the attorney’s arrest.
More charges followed before his eventual guilty plea in April.
District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a prepared statement Wednesday that Morelli betrayed clients and his prosecution ensured he “will be held accountable for his crimes and that he will never practice law again.”