Mississippi Attorneys Accused of Fraudulently Abusing Client Trust

Recently in the Jackson-Metro area, three local attorneys have been found guilty for taking money from their clients’ estates and using it for their personal benefit.  Ridgeland attorney Vann Leonard plead guilty to four separate counts of embezzlement and was also found guilty of embezzling from a client’s bankruptcy estate.  Jackson attorney Michael Brown was disbarred and found guilty for inappropriately handling guardianship of a minor child, the grandson of the well known civil rights activists Aaron Henry.  Brown was found in contempt of court for not being able to account for over $3 million dollars which was to be placed in a guardianship fund.  Attorney Jason Zebert, the President of the Mississippi Crime Fighters Association according to the National Crime Prevention’s website, was held in contempt for taking $133,000.00 in funds from a World War II veteran’s bank account for whom he severed as the veteran’s guardian for several years.  As a result, attorneys Vann Leonard, Michael Brown, and Jason Zebert have all been incarcerated.  The common denominator between the three is that they each acted as a guardian or ward of an estate or account belonging to their clients and fraudulently misappropriated their money and were each found in civil contempt.

In 2011, Jackson attorney Vann Leonard plead guilty of embezzling money from the Downing estate as well as embezzling $327,000 from the bankruptcy estate of Shirley Douglas before the Northern District of Mississippi Federal Court. In May of that year he was found in contempt and Rankin County Chancellor John Grant ordered Mr. Leonard to pay back the stolen money before he could be released from jail. Mr. Leonard was unable to do so and consequently, he was held in contempt of court and Judge Grant had him incarcerated. Unfortunately, this is not Mr. Leonard’s only alleged wrong doing and abuse of public trust.  He also plead guilty to four separate counts of embezzlement in Madison County Circuit Court in a separate matter.

Flowood attorney Michael Brown was disbarred by the Supreme Court of Mississippi for inappropriately handling guardianship of a minor child, the grandson of the well known civil rights activists Aaron Henry.  After being found in contempt of court for not being able to account for the entirety of  $3 million dollars which was to be placed in a guardianship fund, Mr. Brown was ordered to be incarcerated by Hinds County Chancellor Dewayne Thomas. Shortly thereafter in Rankin County Chancery Court, Chancellor Dan Fairly also held Mr. Brown in contempt after he was unable to account for $37,000 of a man’s account which Brown served as a trustee.

Most recently, Jason Zebert, former attorney and City of Pearl prosecutor, was investigated by Madison-Rankin District Attorney Michael Guest for misappropriating the funds of a World War II veteran’s bank account for whom Mr. Zebert severed as the veteran’s guardian for several years. Ironically, Mr. Zebert was the President of the Mississippi Crime Fighters Association according to the National Crime Prevention’s website.  It’s reported that $133,000.00 was taken by Mr. Zebert from the veteran’s account and transferred to his own personal account or disbursed without the permission of the Court. After being ordered to repay the stolen money by Judge Dan Fairly, Zebert was held in contempt after being unable to repay the money. Criminal charges will likely follow the embezzlement charges that lead to the criminal parallel of civil contempt matters.

In all likelihood, both Michael Brown and Jason Zebert will the subject of criminal prosecution for the criminal parallel charge of embezzlement for the same matters in which they were already held in civil contempt. Although it is clear that Chancery Court Judges possess wide authority to incarcerate an attorney or any other individual for failure to abide by court order or any other directive, prosecutors will have a more difficult time establishing the existence of criminal intent in any forthcoming criminal trial. Given that Mr. Brown or Mr. Zebert may end up repaying any of the funds that were misappropriated and are released from jail on the civil contempt charges, it is overwhelming likely that both will face criminal prosecution for embezzlement. Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Zebert are entitled to the presumption of innocence in these matters, particularly in the criminal charges that are soon to follow. Regardless of the outcome of the criminal prosecutions, it is clear that potential clients and the general public’s trust of attorneys have been damaged in all three of these cases.

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