PITTSFIELD -- A local attorney accused of stealing $15,000 from his former law firm employer pulled his plea at the last minute on Friday once a judge told him he wouldn’t avoid jail.
Matthew McDonough, 40, of North Adams, an attorney whose license is currently suspended, appeared before Judge Fredric D. Rutberg on Friday for an unagreed plea on three counts of larceny over $250, felonies, for the alleged theft of $15,000 in fees taken from the Law Offices of Sherwood Guernsey between March and August of 2010.
He began practicing law in 1998 and worked for the law firm from 2003 until he was fired in August 2010.
Police and prosecutors said that in three separate civil cases that McDonough had been assigned to handle he took the fees that were supposed to go to the law firm. He allegedly told police he believed he was entitled to the money since he had done all the work on the cases.
Friday in Central Berkshire District Court, Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Joseph Yorlano asked that McDonough be sentenced to a year in jail with six months to be served and the rest of the time suspended for three years during which time he would be on probation.
Yorlano told the court that the defendant had lied to his employer, hurt the reputation of the law firm and abused the trust of the clients.
"He broke their trust," Yorlano said.
Guernsey was allowed to speak to the court. He said that McDonough had lied to him, falsified documents to hide his activity, and mishandled an accident case involving Guernsey’s son-in-law that ended in the case being dismissed.
"The level of deceit is so unbelievable," he told the court.
McDonough’s attorney, Jud ith Knight, said her client had paid the money back to the law firm before the criminal charges were even filed. McDonough has already suffered for what he did, said Knight, with the loss of his job and the three-year suspension of his law license by the state Board of Bar Overseers.
She said McDonough was suffering from depression at the time.
"His life has completely fallen apart," she said.
Knight asked that the case be continued without a finding of guilt for six months.
Longtime North Adams attorney John B. Derosa spoke in support of McDon ough, telling the court that he has known him since 2001, knew he was a great father to his children, and that his alleged actions were "an aberration."
McDonough apologized for his actions and said he knew what he did was "dishonest" and "wrong."
Rutberg called the charges "serious crimes" and said that he had sat on two other larceny cases that week. In those cases, involving defendants that hadn’t been given the same opportunities as McDon ough, said the judge, the defendants received jail sentences and so should McDonough.
The judge said he would sentence him to one year in jail with 90 days to be served and the balance suspended for a year, during which time he would be on probation.
McDonough decided to take the case to trial instead.
In District Court cases, a defendant may pull his plea if the judge decides to mete out a harsher sentence than what the defendant has asked for.
A trial date of March 28, 2013, has been set in the case.
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