Atlantic County attorney pleads guilty to stealing from clients

Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced that a prominent Atlantic County attorney who specialized in elder law pleaded guilty today to money laundering, admitting that she defrauded elderly clients of millions of dollars and laundered the funds through various accounts, including her attorney trust account.  Charges remain pending against the owner of an in-home senior care company, her sister and a former employee who allegedly participated in the fraud.

Barbara Lieberman, 62, of Northfield, pleaded guilty to an accusation charging her with first-degree money laundering before Superior Court Judge Michael A. Donio in Atlantic County.  Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Lieberman be sentenced to 10 years in state prison, including 3 ½ years of parole ineligibility.  She must forfeit $3 million that the state seized from her, which will be used to pay restitution to her victims.  She also must forfeit her law license in New Jersey and a BMW.  Judge Donio scheduled sentencing for Lieberman for Feb. 3, 2015.

Lieberman was charged in an investigation by the New Jersey State Police and the Division of Criminal Justice.  Deputy Attorney General Yvonne G. Maher prosecuted Lieberman and took the guilty plea for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau.  Detective Richard Wheeler led the investigation for the New Jersey State Police Financial Crimes Unit.

“Lieberman turned the ethical precept that we should honor our elders on its head, heartlessly stealing the money that her unsuspecting clients needed to be able to spend their last days in comfort and dignity,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “Some of her victims were forced into nursing facilities by these thefts because they no longer could afford to live in their homes.  By putting Lieberman in prison and taking away her license to practice law, we send a strong deterrent message to anyone who would consider preying on the elderly in this manner.”

“Lieberman betrayed her oath as an attorney to uphold the law, and she coldly betrayed the vulnerable elderly clients who trusted her,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “This guilty plea will put Lieberman behind bars, where she belongs, and require her to forfeit $3 million for restitution.  Unfortunately, there is no undoing the hurt and anguish she caused victims at the end of their lives.”

“The cruel treatment against elderly victims revealed in this investigation more than justifies the strong prison sentence for Lieberman,” said Colonel Rick Fuentes, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police.  “We look forward to justice being served against the remaining defendants in this greed-driven scam.”

Lieberman was arrested on March 19, 2014, along with Jan Van Holt, 58, of Linwood, the owner of “A Better Choice,” a company that offered seniors in-home services, including “custom designed life care and legal financial planning.” Van Holt faces pending charges of first-degree money laundering, second-degree conspiracy and second-degree theft by deception.  Van Holt’s sister, Sondra Steen, 59, of Linwood, who helped run “A Better Choice,” and Susan Hamlett, 55, of Egg Harbor Township, who worked for them as an aid for elderly clients, face pending charges of second-degree theft by deception.

Lieberman was a leading specialist in elder law in Atlantic County who gave seminars to senior citizens on end of life affairs, wills and living wills.  She targeted elderly clients with substantial assets who typically did not have any immediate family.  Van Holt allegedly referred clients to Lieberman, and vice versa.  They offered the elderly clients non-medical care and assistance, including financial and legal services.  The defendants allegedly took control of the finances of their victims by forging a power of attorney or obtaining one on false pretenses.

Lieberman would prepare the documents naming herself or another defendant as power of attorney.  The defendants then allegedly added their names to the victim’s bank account or transferred the victim’s funds into new accounts they controlled.  Thereafter, the defendants allegedly siphoned away the money to pay their own expenses, including six-figure credit card bills for Lieberman.  Van Holt allegedly used stolen funds to purchase two Mercedes cars, a Florida condo, pool supplies and veterinary services for her pets, among other things.

A portion of the money was used to fund the victim’s continued expenses to keep the victim unaware of the thefts.  In some cases, money from one victim would be transferred to another victim to pay expenses and cover up the thefts.  If the victim owned stocks or bonds, they were cashed out and the funds were deposited into the account allegedly controlled by the defendants.

Lieberman also prepared wills for some of the victims, and she or Van Holt would execute the wills, allegedly continuing to steal from the estates of the victims after they died.  The defendants would sometimes use the powers of attorney to transfer the victim’s assets into Lieberman’s Interest on Lawyers Trust Account (IOLTA).  Lawyers are required to maintain IOLTA accounts to safeguard funds entrusted to them by or on behalf of clients.  However, Lieberman would write checks from her IOLTA account to herself, Van Holt, Steen and Hamlett.

The thefts began at least as early as 2006 and continued through 2013.  Van Holt previously worked for Atlantic County Adult Protective Services as a case worker.  After she left that job in 2006, she started her own business, A Better Choice, offering in-home services to senior citizens.  Those who worked for the company, including Van Holt, Steen and Hamlett, performed a variety of services for clients, including household chores, errands, driving clients to appointments, scheduling, budgeting, paying bills, balancing checkbooks, and other tasks.  They did not provide healthcare services.  Van Holt also created a company called “Elder Hospice,” but it was nothing more than a bank account.

Detective Wheeler and Deputy Attorney General Maher of the Casino Prosecutions Unit conducted the investigation under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General Jill Mayer, Chief of the Specialized Crimes Bureau.  Acting Attorney General Hoffman thanked the New Jersey Office of the Public Guardian, which initially referred the case to the State Police.  Deputy Attorney General Derek Miller is handling the state’s forfeiture action.

The charges against the remaining defendants are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.  Because the charges are indictable offenses, they will be presented to a state grand jury for potential indictment.

Atlantic County attorney pleads guilty to stealing from clients