CHARLESTON, S.C. — A banker accused of helping locked-out lawyer Alex Murdaugh collect money from clients in legal settlements was found guilty late Tuesday of wire transfers and bank fraud in South Carolina.
Former Palmetto State Bank CEO Russell Laffitte was allowed to remain free on bail as he awaits sentencing at a later date. Each of the six charges he was convicted of in federal court carries a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison.
It was the first lawsuit involving the sprawling Murdaugh legal drama that captivated True-Crime audiences.
Murdaugh is accused of killing his wife and son, and his murder trial is due to begin in January. He also faces nearly 100 other charges, ranging from money laundering to drug offenses to stealing customers and trying to arrange his own death, to secure a $10 million life insurance benefit for his surviving son.
And although Murdaugh, 54, wasn’t in federal court in Charleston, he stood out because of Laffitte’s lawsuit.
Laffitte, 51, did not deny that his handling of Murdaugh’s finances helped the lawyer steal from clients, but testified in his own defense during his federal lawsuit, according to news outlets, that he was deceived.
When a district attorney asked Laffitte if he had stolen, he replied, “I did it, but absolutely not intentionally.”
Alex Murdaugh bekennt sich des Mordes an seiner Frau und seinem Sohn auf nicht schuldig
The public prosecutor had to prove that Laffitte was intentionally involved in the fraud in order to convict him.
According to prosecutors, Laffitte knew what he was doing when he worked effectively as Murdaugh’s private banker and eventually became the court-appointed custodian for settlement money for several of his underage clients.
Laffitte borrowed money from these settlements to Murdaugh and himself and diverted that money for people or deaths.
Murdaugh planned to steal the money but needed someone who was organized and detail-oriented to prevent him from being easily caught, District Attorney Emily Limehouse said in her closing statement.
“None of this would have happened without Alex Murdaugh, but none of this could have happened without the defendant,” Limehouse said.
Through both Laffitte’s testimony and other witnesses, defense attorneys tried to show that the banker was only trying to follow the instructions of one of his biggest clients, and he was lied to and manipulated.
“He admits he did everything,” defense attorney Matt Austin said in his closing statement. “He simply doesn’t believe he committed a crime.”
However, prosecutors pointed out that Murdaugh issued Laffitte checks to the bank and not to clients, which allowed the lawyer to redirect the money to people he owed money to, whether it was his law firm from which he had stolen money, other clients from whom he had already stolen money, or family members.
As a result, Laffitte was also able to avoid taxes.
Laffitte was convicted in one case of bank fraud, transfer fraud and conspiracy, and in three cases of misuse of bank funds. He also faces 21 cases of financial crime in state courts.
Murdaugh was expelled and Laffitte was released last year.
The Murdaugh murder case even appeared in Laffitte’s trial. Murdaugh’s wife Maggie, 52, and their 22-year-old son Paul were shot dead with various weapons outside a family home in Colleton County on June 7, 2021.
A Laffittes Bank employee testified that she confronted Murdaugh with missing charges in one of his cases hours before the killings. Neither Laffitte prosecutors nor investigators of the murders have mentioned whether they see a connection between the events.
Both Murdaugh and Laffitte hail from tiny Hampton County. Murdaugh’s family law firm dominated the legal community, and his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were the region’s elected prosecutors for 87 years.
Laffitte’s family founded Palmetto State Bank and earned an excellent reputation that led to awards such as being named Banker of the Year by the Independent Banks of South Carolina in 2019.
And as in many small towns, their families were intertwined. The law firm employee who confronted Murdaugh about the lack of money on the day his wife and son died was Jeanne Seckinger, Laffitte’s sister-in-law.