Indictments issued in Brooke Astor estate feud

In the latest twist to the Brooke Astor estate litigation [click here for a chronology of the case], Ms. Astor's son, Anthony D. Marshall, has been indicted on charges of plundering his mother's $198 million estate.  Here’s an excerpt from an AP article headlined Brooke Astor's son accused of plundering estate:

An indictment charges Marshall, 83, with grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, forgery, scheme to defraud, falsifying business records, offering a false instrument for filing and conspiracy.

The top count, grand larceny, is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

Marshall's former attorney, Francis X. Morrissey Jr., also has been indicted on those charges.

"The indictment charges that Marshall and Morrissey took advantage of Mrs. Astor's diminished mental capacity in a scheme to defraud her and others out of millions of dollars," said District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

Marshall's son, Philip, prompted the criminal investigation last year after he accused his father of neglecting Astor's care and stealing her money.

While a criminal indictment may seem like a win for the parties suing Mr. Marshall in the NY probate proceedings, in the long run it will likely cause more harm than good in the civil litigation.  For example, as previously reported by the NY Times in Talks on Astor Estate Halted to Clear Way for a Criminal Inquiry, settlement discussions that were apparently making good progress have now been halted at the behest of the prosecutor's office:

The district attorney’s office wants the settlement talks, being held under the auspices of the Westchester County Surrogate’s Court, held at bay to prevent prosecutors from losing a strategic edge, should indictments and a criminal trial result, according to the people who have been briefed.

This could happen, for example, if their key witnesses were deposed in the Westchester case by Mr. Marshall’s lawyers, who could then learn details of the district attorney’s line of inquiry, the people said.

*     *     *     *     *

During a half-hour hearing .  .  . Judge Anthony A. Scarpino asked a representative for the attorney general if the office’s position regarding settlement talks remained the same. He was told that it did.

“Negotiations are on hold status, as far as we’re concerned,” the judge then said, without mentioning the specific reason behind the stalled talks.

He reiterated that protracted litigation as a result of an inability to settle the case was “going to cost the charities a lot of money” by eroding their bequests. The settlement discussions spanned two weeks or so last month. The talks, spurred by the question of which of Mrs. Astor’s wills should be the valid one, focused on how much money the main charities would receive from her estate, which is valued at about $132 million, in addition to a trust estimated to be worth more than $60 million.

Not only do the civil litigants lose control of the case once a criminal indictment is issued, discovery becomes much more challenging because the other side can now "plead the 5th" and simply refuse to answer your questions in a deposition.  I've written before about this tactic [click here].  Ask yourself: who really benefits when the other side is indicted?

Lesson learned:

Criminal indictment = more expensive and time consuming civil litigation = unhappy client.

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Paul Stokes - November 28, 2007 9:11 AM

This case is also about criminalizing will contests and guardianship fiduciary misfeasance. Looking at the indictment of the lawyer in this matter, it also is about criminalizing ethical violations. Are we moving toward a European model here, where lapses we would handle on the civil side more readily bleed into the criminal area? Or maybe it is simply the fame of Mrs. Astor and the press-driven notoriety of the case. Maybe it is simply a sport. I hope so.

Phil Bernstein - December 5, 2007 4:45 PM

Actually, the case is about forgery and theft. The charge against the attorney in this matter is that he helped to engineer a scheme to defraud his former client by assisting Mr. Marshall in the preparation and execution of a forged document. That is a crime in anyone's book! It would have been a longshot to believe that Mr. Morrissey would have been indicted if all that could be shown was that he had committed ethical violations. He might have been subject to professional discipline but hardly a criminal charge if he did not commit a crime as has been alleged.

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