SMITHFIELD — In the seven months that a band of Johnston County lawyers schemed to make drunken driving cases disappear, their only protection was the trust they had in each other to keep the secret.
Monday, that faith was gone, dissolved in the year since state prosecutors charged them with fixing the cases. They barely looked at one another as they pleaded guilty. Their careers collapsed, and they had nothing to show for it. The scam, ill-conceived and short-lived, earned them little and cost them almost everything.
Chad Lee and Lee Hatch, buddies for more than a decade, headed to prison for nearly four years. They were spared the 50 years their crimes could have brought them; both surrendered their law licenses. Jack McLamb and Vann Sauls will be forbidden to take criminal cases as they serve three years of probation. Portia Snead, a deputy Superior Court clerk who helped with the scam, lost her job and retirement pay; she, too, is on probation. Cindy Jaeger, a former prosecutor at the center of the plot, still faces charges.
The pleas help close an investigation that rocked the Johnston County legal community. Prosecutors say that, with Jaeger's help, the lawyers and the clerk wiped away drunken driving charges for dozens of defendants. Court documents were treated like currency, traded after hours among friends, filed in daylight under the auspices of official court business.
"I cannot understand why anyone thought this was a good idea," Superior Court Judge Henry Hight said moments before sentencing Lee. "Detection was almost certain given the records and the number of people involved. I don't get it."
No explanation was offered Monday. Each of the defendants' lawyers offered apologies and assurances that their clients were good people.
"Chad had made some mistakes. There is no justification, and I will not address one," said Doug Parsons, who represented Lee.
All for not much
An SBI agent took the stand Monday and described how the lawyers and the clerk managed to defraud the court system.
The scheme, explained in even the simplest terms, makes little sense. No one got rich. No one got a promotion or even congratulations. Some of the clients didn't even know they were granted a favor.
Agent Randy Myers said that Jaeger, a few weeks before she resigned as an assistant Johnston County district attorney in September 2007, was bombarded with requests from dozens of lawyers, including Hatch, Lee and Sauls, for dismissals.
Myers said she agreed to grant many dismissals for her friends Hatch, Lee and Sauls, but insisted they be filed in the clerk's office after she resigned.
Hatch and Lee obliged. The dismissals, dated August and September 2007, were filed in the clerk's office months later. Snead overlooked incongruous dates and entered the dismissals into the court database, sealing the deal.
Only a few perks for the players emerged Monday:
Lee treated Snead to a trip in New York.
Hatch and Lee helped Jaeger move to Winston-Salem in fall 2007.
The clients didn't seem to pay exorbitant rates for the gift of the dismissals. The court ordered the lawyers to refund the money collected from clients. Lee, for instance, is on the hook for $28,800. Divided among cases in which he admitted guilt, that's not much more than the standard $1,500 rate for handling a drunken driving case in Johnston County.
Jaeger's fate is unclear. A prosecutor indicated he intends to put her on trial in the coming months. Her attorney, David Freedman, scribbled notes, but Jaeger wasn't in the courtroom Monday.
"This has been very stressful having this hanging over her head, and with this being handled today and not knowing what will happen," Freedman said.
Even knowing how Monday would end did not dull the defendants' pain and humiliation.
In court, they were forbidden to come to the front of the courtroom unless escorted by their attorneys, a privilege they enjoyed as lawyers for years. A judge forced them to answer a litany of questions about their prescriptions, their education and their mental health. Their families packed the courtroom, dabbing eyes as they watched.
Leaving ill son behind
Lee Hatch is leaving his wife and two young children, one of whom is ill and must soon undergo expensive hospital treatment. Hatch's attorney asked that he be granted work release in prison, so he might provide something to his family during the next three and a half years.
As Chad Lee walked into court, friends offered a hand. He met each with a faint smile. One man heckled him and told him he should be ashamed of himself.
He walked slowly and feebly to the same chair he'd guided clients to for years.
Parsons, Lee's attorney, explained the toll the year has taken on him.
"He has had a tremendous struggle," Parsons told the judge. "He is a broken man, but he is not dead. He will rehabilitate a family name which he has humiliated."
For the next four years, though, his family's legacy will shadow him. His father, Robey Lee, worked as a state prison official for decades, capping his career as warden of Central Prison in Raleigh.
Lee's father looked on Monday, watching as deputies escorted his son to jail.
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