By Dave Rogers
---- — WOBURN — A Merrimac lawyer pleaded guilty last Thursday for his role in a scheme that saw his wife embezzle $1 million from clients and was sentenced to two years in jail and four years’ probation.
Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin sentenced 49-year-old Peter Unitt III to two years in a house of correction, with four months to serve, deemed served, and the balance suspended for a period of four years’ probation. In addition, the defendant is ordered to pay restitution, which will be decided during a hearing scheduled for September.
Unitt’s wife, Lee Peck Eu Unitt, 48, of Merrimac, was found guilty April 29 following a 10-day jury trial in Middlesex Superior Court on charges of felony larceny (four counts), fiduciary embezzlement and being a common and notorious thief. Lee Unitt was sentenced to four consecutive two-year terms in state prison on the larceny counts with up to 20 years probation from and after her prison sentence, according to Middlesex County prosecutors.
As part of her probation conditions, Lee Unitt must stay away and have no contact with her victims, pay full restitution, cannot apply for a passport without court approval, must not work in a law office or any financial services office during the term of probation, must make full financial disclosure of assets as requested by probation and make tax returns available for inspection.
“Through this scheme, the defendants conspired and stole hundreds of thousands from clients and friends who trusted them and, in turn, used the money to fund their own extravagant personal lifestyle,” Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said.
According to authorities, Unitt practiced law at his law office in Woburn that was known as The Crest Group, LLC. Lee Unitt worked at the firm as a secretary, business manager and paralegal.
While at her trial, Lee Unitt was proven to be the more culpable party in that it appeared the embezzlement scheme was her brainchild. Unitt served a major role in the scheme by being the sole signatory on the accounts and using the clients’ funds for his and wife’s extravagant lifestyle.
The defendant used clients’ money for family vacations to Malaysia, Club Med, Cancun and Aruba, expensive cars including Hummers, Cadillacs and Land Rovers, and thousands of dollars in monthly personal expenses. Functionally, the defendant operated a Ponzi scheme by using a small portion of the money from clients’ investments to pay debts due to other clients, according to prosecutors.
All monies collected from the clients or from mortgages arranged for the Crest Group clients were deposited into the law firm’s lawyer’s trust accounts, managed by Unitt. According to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, that money is held by the attorney in behalf of the client and is not to be expended for purposes unrelated to representation of the client, unless so authorized by the client. Almost $800,000 of client funds were misappropriated and stolen from the law firm’s client trust accounts.
Lee Unitt also embezzled investment money from a married couple whom she had befriended. The wife had been involved in an automobile accident and Lee Unitt again recommended refinancing their home and investment properties and investing the new mortgage proceeds in an international real estate investment pool. Lee Unitt promised a return of 11 percent or greater. The victims entrusted over $500,000 to Lee Unitt from refinancing proceeds and from their savings for retirement. Neither of the victims ever received an accounting as to the status of their investments nor has any of their money been returned.