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Ex-Lawyer Is Sent to Prison for Swindling

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former Chatsworth lawyer who admitted swindling dozens of clients out of more than $215,000 in automobile accident settlements was sentenced Tuesday to 40 months in prison.

Richard F. Murkey, 44, who pleaded guilty to seven counts of grand theft, was immediately turned over to state prison officials by Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Michael J. Farrell.

Murkey’s attorney, Bruce C. Hill, pleaded with Farrell to delay the sentence another month so the former attorney could settle his financial affairs.

But Farrell refused, noting that Murkey had entered his guilty plea more than six months ago and that sentencing already had been delayed several times.

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As part of a plea agreement, other less serious charges against Murkey, such as forgery and practicing law while suspended, were dropped by prosecutors.

Since the State Bar of California began investigating Murkey in August, 1989, 58 of his former clients have filed claims charging him with embezzling money from insurance payments and court settlements.

State Bar spokeswoman Susan Scott said the organization’s Client Security Fund, which insures clients against theft by their attorneys, has paid $215,000 to 32 of Murkey’s former clients.

The remaining claims seek in excess of $100,000, she said.

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A personal injury lawyer who handled mostly automobile accident cases, Murkey voluntarily resigned from the bar in March, 1990, during disbarment proceedings, Scott said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. James A. Baker said the charges to which Murkey pleaded guilty involve seven former clients from whom Murkey embezzled a total of more than $50,000.

Baker said that Murkey settled cases without approval or knowledge of his clients, then forged their signatures on checks to get the funds.

In one instance, Baker said, Murkey pressured an accident victim to sign a retainer agreement as the victim lay disabled with a brain injury in a hospital bed.

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In another case, according to court records, Murkey settled a lawsuit for $12,000 but turned none of the money over to his client, who faced $170,000 in medical bills.

Authorities said Murkey used the money that belonged to his clients to make real estate investments and personal purchases.

“As far as I can tell, it was just high living,” Baker said.

But Alan R. Baum, an attorney who had represented Murkey in earlier proceedings, said the former lawyer stole from clients because he was under severe stress from personal problems, including a divorce and a battle for custody of his son.

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