HOUSTON (CN) – A Houston personal injury attorney is in custody awaiting a bond hearing after federal prosecutors unsealed a sprawling indictment charging him with running a 13-year scam that involved tax evasion and the illegal solicitation of clients also known as barratry.
If convicted on all counts, Jeffrey Stern faces up to 84 years in federal prison, which would effectively be a death sentence for the 62-year-old attorney.
Stern made his initial appearance Monday and U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Bray ordered him to remain in custody until an Aug. 22 bond hearing.
Prosecutors claim Stern tapped case runners to illegally solicit car and workplace accident victims to hire him – a crime called barratry, known in layman’s terms as “ambulance chasing” – then made illegal kickback payments to the runners that he funneled through the accounts of attorneys Deborah Bradley and Richard Plezia.
Prosecutors say Plezia and Bradley never got the referral fees checks Stern wrote them because, at Stern’s direction, legal assistant and case runner Frederick Morris forged signatures on the checks, cashed them and paid kickbacks to himself and other case runners for referring cases to Stern.
Morris pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States on Aug. 8 and was released pending sentencing, court records show.
Plezia and Bradley, an attorney at Stern’s firm, are also facing charges for their alleged roles in the scam, which spanned from 2006 until early this month, according to a superseding indictment a federal grand jury returned on Aug. 6 and prosecutors unsealed Monday.
Prosecutors claim Stern, Bradley and Plezia filed false tax returns to conceal their scheme, and Stern lowered his tax debt by reporting the kickback payments as deductible business expenses.
Bradley made her first appearance before Bray on Monday and was released on bond.
Stern tried to cover his tracks once he learned in 2016 a federal grand jury was investigating him, according to the superseding indictment.
“Stern ordered coconspirators to destroy subpoenaed documents. At meetings with co-conspirators, he directed them not to cooperate in the investigation,” the indictment states.
This isn’t Stern’s first brush with the law. In January, 2011 Harris County prosecutors in Houston charged him with solicitation of capital murder, claiming he had plotted with his one-time mistress Michelle Cabrera Gaiser to have his wife Yvonne Stern killed.
The Harris County district attorney’s office dismissed the case in July 2012 for insufficient evidence. Yvonne reconciled with Jeffrey after she was shot in the stomach in May 2010.