BELFAST, Maine — A Belfast lawyer was sentenced Friday to 30 months in prison for stealing nearly $500,000 from two elderly clients.
In one case, William L. Dawson Jr. placed an 85-year-old Belfast resident in a nursing home for four years while he looted her bank accounts, according to court records.
Dawson pleaded guilty Friday in Waldo County Superior Court to two counts of felony theft and three counts of failing to pay state income taxes. Justice Robert Murray sentenced Dawson to five years in prison with all but 2½ years suspended to be followed by three years of probation.
The theft was uncovered in March 2013 when a teller at Key Bank noticed Dawson was writing large checks to himself on at least a weekly basis from the account of Veronica Pendleton. She alerted her supervisor, and a review of the account was undertaken, as well as that of another customer, 97-year-old Doris Schmidt. In that case, Dawson also was writing large checks on her account, according to Assistant Maine Attorney General Leanne Robbin.
Murray ordered Dawson to pay restitution of $385,000 to Pendleton’s estate and $98,000 to Schmidt’s estate. Both women have since died.
The prosecutor said that after an investigation began, Dawson submitted bills he said explained the checks. But Robbin said the reasons Dawson gave for the billing were “breathtaking.” Even though his office was just a one-minute drive from Pendleton’s home, Dawson would bill her $250 per hour for six to seven hours to go check on the house, pick up her mail and take care of her bills while she was in the nursing home.
A probate court in 2013 removed Dawson’s power over their finances.
Attorney Susan Thiem, who represents the Pendleton estate, said Friday that Dawson had put Pendleton in the nursing home for a temporary medical condition but kept her there for four years until his theft of her money was uncovered. Thiem read a letter from Anne Cilley, who was a friend of Pendleton, in which she said that after the theft was uncovered, Pendleton was able to return home for three months before she died.
Pendleton had told Cilley she felt like she had been incarcerated for four years and missed seeing the birds and squirrels in her yard, according to Cilley’s letter.
Schmidt suffered from dementia and was in the same nursing home as Pendleton. Dawson had given himself power of attorney over Schmidt’s finances without going to probate court, according to the prosecutor.
Sarah McPartland-Good, the director of planned giving for the University of Maine Foundation, said both women previously had given to the foundation. Pendleton donated money for scholarships for forestry and related programs while Schmidt gave to the senior college at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast. She said the theft deprived at least one student each year from receiving at least a year’s worth of tuition in scholarship.
Dawson spoke to Murray before the sentence was imposed. He said overseeing the properties and finances of the two women was a heavy burden and he wished he had done a better job. He said he checked on their homes on a daily basis because he had a prior client whose pipes burst while she was in a nursing home and significantly damaged the home. Dawson said he did not want a repeat of that incident.
Murray also ordered Dawson to repay $36,000 in back state incomes taxes for 2011, 2012 and 2013 from the unreported income he received from the victims’ accounts.
Dawson has agreed to sell his house with the proceeds of the sale — minus taxes he owes and his attorney’s fees — to go toward repaying some of the money owed. Dawson filed for bankruptcy last month, which Thiem said will make it more complicated to recover money.
The judge agreed to allow Dawson to report to jail at noon Saturday so the lawyer could complete his tax returns.
Dawson has practiced law in Maine since 1989.
Back in 2011, Dawson was reprimanded by the bar overseers after three separate clients filed complaints alleging he had not done his work in a timely or competent fashion.