HOUSTON — A 73-year-old attorney pleaded guilty in Houston federal district court Tuesday to conspiring with his wife to steal $2.3 million from 49 disabled veterans and then hiding the thefts by creating fake reports, imaginary bank accounts and filing a bogus income tax return.
As part of his guilty plea to two of 21 charges against him, Joe B. Phillips admitted to transferring more than $1.36 million from veterans clients' accounts directly to a joint checking account that he shared with his wife between 2003 and 2007.
Phillips' wife Dorothy, 72, a self-described gambling addict, pleaded guilty to similar charges in April and admitted to misusing some veterans' money to fund casino trips to Louisiana, where she often gambled at the Auberge du Lac and Delta Downs, court records show.
But Joe Phillips, 73, had insisted on his innocence until Tuesday — minutes before jury selection for his trial was to begin and after his attorneys warned him in open court that his wife's admissions to the couple's conspiracy had damaged his defense.
During that same period, the couple withdrew a similar amount in cash, sometimes from ATMs inside casinos on gambling trips. He also acknowledged signing false accounting statements and a bogus income tax return.
Kenneth Magidson, U.S. Attorney for the Southern district of Texas, said he places a high priority on cases involving veterans. “Veterans devote their services and lives to their country and, as deserved, afforded certain benefits. We do not take it lightly when someone violates the trust of these Veterans and takes away what is rightfully theirs by such unscrupulous fraud.”
Phillips was one of a handful of fiduciaries investigated by Hearst Newspapers as part of story in July. He has remained free on $100,000 bond since first being charged in 2010, is expected to be sentenced in December. He refused comment.
Judge Lee H. Rosenthal warned Phillips that he faced a maximum eight-year sentence for the two charges; a fine of $500,000 and restitution of at least $2.3 million, based on the governments estimates of veterans' losses. But Rosenthal told Phillips that he and his wife could face an even tougher sentence because of the number of victims, their vulnerability and the amount of losses. Rosenthal promised the upcoming pre-sentence investigation will re-examine the veterans' losses, which Phillips has claimed are less than government estimates.
The VA has never released a complete list of the amounts each individual veteran lost, first discovered in a 2007 audit. Though some victims have since been compensated by the federal government, others whose assets were overseen by Phillips and their families have told the Chronicle they have never been contacted.
Phillips worked for the VA for several years and since the 1980s has dedicated most of his law practice to working with disabled veterans; his wife was his legal assistant. The couple reported an annual income of $100,000 to $145,000 in 2004-2007, lived in a modest house and drove a Lexus, according to the indictment and a recently bankruptcy filing.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Phillips won approval to manage benefits and assets for as many as 50 disabled veterans at a time as both a VA fiduciary and a payee under the Social Security Administration. In both roles, he received disabled veterans' benefit checks and also managed veterans' bank accounts and spending. In at least 28 cases, probate courts also appointed him to oversee veterans' estates and over the years he also was appointed to dispose of dead veterans' assets.
By Lise Olsen
San Antonio Express-News
September 5, 2012