PITTSFIELD -- An attorney from North Adams pleaded guilty on Thursday to stealing $15,000 from his former law firm and avoided having to serve a direct jail sentence.
Matthew McDonough, 41, received a suspended sentence and probation during what was his second plea hearing in the case. At the first one, McDonough pulled his plea when the judge at the time said he would sentence him to jail.
In Central Berkshire District Court, McDonough wiped away tears as Judge Charles W. Groce III lectured him on the "awesome responsibility" of the law profession.
"You took an oath and you violated that oath," the judge told McDonough.
Groce, calling the case "disturbing," said McDonough had betrayed the public's trust and that his actions "damage" the law profession as a whole.
The case, said the judge, "revealed the dark side" of the law: that "we too can be tempted are fallible and human."
The judge said he believed the crimes were not committed out of necessity, but rather in "anger, resentment and a sense of entitlement."
Groce said that the decision on sentencing had not been easy. But Groce said he would not sentence McDonough to jail time, but instead give him a one-year suspended sentence and a year of probation. McDonough accepted the sentence and pleaded guilty to three counts of larceny over $250.
Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Joseph Yorlano told the court that McDonough, while working for the Law Offices of Sherwood Guernsey between March and August of 2010, stole $15,000 in fees from three cases that were supposed to go to the law firm.
McDonough told police he believed he was entitled to the money since he had done all the work on the cases, said the prosecutor.
The defendant's attorney, Timothy J. Shugrue, said his client, who was handling all the litigation for the firm, was told he would not be made a partner or receive a pay raise.
Yorlano said that McDonough also generated numerous fake documents in order to cover his tracks in cases he had mishandled. The prosecutor wondered aloud how things might have been different had McDonough spent as much time on the actual cases rather than on the "fake work."
The judge also allowed Guernsey to speak in court. Guernsey said that McDonough left behind a "trail of fraud, deceit and stolen money" after being let go in August 2010 when the crimes were discovered.
McDonough began working for the firm in 2003 and received his law degree from Suffolk University Law School in Boston in 1998.
Guernsey said that besides the three cases in which the defendant stole money, there were "25 to 30" others that he had mishandled and covered up -- in one instance for three years -- and included an accident case involving Guernsey's son-in-law that ended in a dismissal.
Guernsey asked that McDonough receive jail time. The DA's office was asking for a year jail sentence with six months to be served direct and the rest suspended for three years during which time McDonough would be on probation.
Shugrue said his client took responsibility for his actions, quickly paid back the money and sought psychiatric therapy. He said McDonough had become overwhelmed by his work and "spiraled down."
Shugrue argued that McDonough had already lost his career, wife and home and had been "humiliated" by the press because of his behavior. McDonough had his law license suspended by the state Board of Bar Overseers and may not be able to get it back, Shugrue said.
McDonough has been doing landscaping to pay the bills, said Shugrue, and has just taken a position with a concrete manufacturing company.
Shugrue also read several letters from other attorneys in support of McDonough, in which they said he was a good man and father whose behavior was "aberrant" and not reflective of his personality.
Shugrue said that although "people make mistakes," his client has made the "right choices afterward."
He asked that McDonough receive a continuation without a finding of guilt on the charges.
In July 2012, McDonough, then represented by attorney Judith Knight, attempted a change in plea in the same case, but decided to go to trial when told by Judge Fredric D. Rutberg that he would be sentenced to one year in jail with 90 days to be served and the balance suspended for a year.
In District Court cases before the day of trial, a defendant may pull his plea if the judge decides to mete out a harsher sentence than what the defendant has asked.
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