A Garden City lawyer who the district attorney’s office said treated his clients’ settlement money “as his personal piggy bank” by stealing more than $785,000 pleaded guilty Monday to felony charges.
Prosecutors said Steven Morelli, 60, is now facing 2 1/2 to 7 1/2 years in prison when a judge sentences him in June after his plea to eight grand larceny charges.
The Nassau district attorney’s office said Morelli stole from 22 clients and used the money for himself and his law practice. Authorities said he’ll be disbarred because of his guilty plea.
“Attorneys are entrusted with a special responsibility to act in their clients’ best interests, but instead this defendant treated his clients’ settlement funds as his personal piggy bank,” Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a prepared statement.
Morelli surrendered to Nassau police in March 2016 to face charges they said were connected to his theft of about $200,000 he won in civil settlements for four clients. Police said at the time that they started an investigation in 2015 when one of his clients made a complaint.
Morelli told one suspicious client “the check was probably lost in the mail,” police said at the time of his arrest.
Prosecutors said Monday that the investigation continued after Morelli’s initial arrest and authorities found 18 more victims.
Police have said Morelli’s scheme consisted of withdrawing funds from a law firm account after receiving money in connection with a client’s lawsuit settlement, and then using it on personal items.
Morelli has paid back about $170,000, according to prosecutors, who said he agreed to pay back about $615,000 more.
Morelli’s attorney, Marc Gann, said Monday that his client “is doing everything he can to make people whole.”
Gann said Morelli had practiced civil rights work as a plaintiff’s attorney and many former clients reached out and were supportive of him after his arrest.
“He got himself in financial trouble and he went to a place he shouldn’t have gone,” the Mineola defense attorney said. “He’s accepted responsibility and is hopeful of paying everyone back.”