BOSTON — Former city law firm owner Abigail R. Williams, whose associate was disbarred and criminally convicted for stealing money from clients in 2019, is now facing possible disbarment herself.
At a hearing Friday in front of a single state Supreme Judicial Court Justice, the commonwealth’s Board of Bar Overseers alleged Williams “diverted” more than $270,000 in settlement funds from three clients.
“Just because there’s one thief in a firm doesn’t mean there aren’t two,” Assistant Bar Counsel Sherri Gilmore, who is pursuing the case for the state, said Friday as she summed up for the judge a tangled web of allegations that investigators have been sorting out for years.
Williams was the owner of Abigail Williams & Associates PC, a medical malpractice and personal injury firm that shuttered amidst a convergence of probes in 2018 after more than 20 years in business.
Williams’ former associate, Ross Annenberg, was disbarred in 2015 after the BBO, which investigates and disciplines lawyers, accused him of “misusing” hundreds of thousands in client funds.
Charged in 2018
The matter rested there for years until 2018, when Worcester police charged Annenberg with theft shortly after the Telegram & Gazette began inquiring about why charges had not been filed.
Annenberg was later indicted into Worcester Superior Court, where he pleaded guilty to allegations he stole nearly a quarter million dollars from clients and the firm. He avoided jail time by cutting a check of more than $225,000 to victims.
Williams, who had been asking authorities about the status of Annenberg’s case in the months preceding his charges, and who publicly questioned the delay in the T&G’s coverage, has consistently cast Annenberg as the source of all wrongdoing.
When the T&G reported in 2018 that Williams was under a Bar of Board Overseers investigation for alleged impropriety, she cast the suspicions against her as retribution ginned up by Annenberg.
On Friday, Gilmore told Supreme Judicial Court Justice Scott L. Kafker that Williams has continued to use Annenberg as a “scapegoat” for her wrongdoing, even though one of the cases in which she is accused of diverting funds happened after he left the firm.
The reality, she alleged, is that Williams’ firm was $6 million in debt in 2011, and that while Annenberg took money clients deserved, Williams did, too.
Accused of diverting funds
The cases in which Williams is accused of diverting funds are different from the cases in which Annenberg was implicated, court records show.
Williams, who attended the virtual Zoom hearing, but did not activate her camera, argued through her lawyer that the BBO failed to prove she, not Annenberg, was responsible for the diverted money.
The lawyer, Alan E. Brown, argued that Annenberg had been involved in some way in the two largest cases at issue, and that the state had not conclusively proved that Williams, not Annenberg, was to blame.
Brown argued the BBO made legal errors in its prosecution and rulings that warranted a finding against disbarment, or an order of new proceedings.
Gilmore said the argument did not hold merit, noting that both a hearing committee and the full Board of Bar Overseers upheld the charges following a lengthy public hearing conducted in summer 2020.
Gilmore said bank and other records scrutinized by state experts show that Williams, not Annenberg, held control over accounts used to divert money in the cases at issue, and that Williams, not Annenberg, benefited personally from the funds.
Kafker asked pointed questions of both sides. He bluntly questioned Brown on several points, including about a contention that the BBO couldn’t use circumstantial evidence to prove Williams knowingly diverted money.
“That’s of course not true,” Kafker interjected as the lawyer made the argument. “We often, particularly in financial crimes, have to rely on circumstantial evidence.”
Kafker, after hearing arguments for about an hour, took the case under advisement. He said he would be reviewing the voluminous case record before rendering a decision.
Williams’ license to practice law has been suspended since April 2019 for non-cooperation with the BBO’s investigation.
Contact Brad Petrishen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BPetrishenTG