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Texas Lawyers Charged with 21 Counts of Tax Crimes, Conspiracy, Other Offenses

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    The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently issued a press release announcing a superseding indictment, or revised set of criminal charges, against three Houston lawyers, Deborah Bradley, Richard Plezia, and Jeffrey Stern – the latter of whom, ABC Houston 13 reported, “made national headlines [eight years ago] for allegedly trying to get his socialite wife, Yvonne Stern, killed.” Collectively, the co-defendants and two others stand charged with 21 counts of assorted federal crimes, including tax offenses, conspiracy, and witness tampering. According to the DOJ, the offenses were allegedly part of a complex “barratry scheme,” which, in law, refers to any litigation intended purely to profit off of another – in this particular instance, by “soliciting… clients by paying kickbacks to middlemen.” Most people know barratry by another name, which is mentioned in the superseding indictment: “ambulance-chasing.” To prevent detection by the authorities, Stern and his co-defendants also engaged in various tax violations, including filing false returns, offering false Offers in Compromise (OICs) to the IRS, and taking a series of actions to disguise kickbacks as “legitimate, deductible business expenses.”

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    Houston Lawyers Charged with Tax Crimes, Conspiracy, Obstruction of Justice, Witness Tampering

    On August 20, 2019, prosecutors unsealed a 48-page superseding indictment listing, in exhaustive detail, 21 criminal charges against Plezia, Bradley, and Stern. Also named were co-defendants Frederick Morris, a legal assistant, and Lamont Ratcliff, who owns a clinic, both of whom were described as “case runners,” or middlemen receiving illicit kickbacks. Included in the superseding indictment were the following charges:

    • Count 1 – Conspiracy to defraud the United States (18 U.S. Code § 371), charged against all defendants
    • Count 2Willfully filing a false tax return (26 U.S. Code § 7206(1)), charged against Stern (for the calendar year 2012)
    • Counts 3, 4 – Willfully filing false tax returns (26 U.S. Code § 7206(1)), charged against Stern (for the years 2013 and 2014)
    • Count 5 – Willfully filing a false tax return (26 U.S. Code § 7206(1)), charged against Stern (for the year 2015)
    • Counts 6-11Aiding and assisting in the preparation of false returns ((26 U.S. Code § 7206(2)), charged against Stern and Morris (for the years 2011 through 2015, along with 2017)
    • Counts 12-15 – Willfully filing false tax returns (26 U.S. Code § 7206(1)), charged against Bradley (for the years 2012 through 2015)
    • Counts 16-18 – Willfully filing false tax returns (26 U.S. Code § 7206(1)), charged against Ratcliff (for the years 2012 through 2014)
    • Count 19 – Witness tampering (18 U.S. Code § 1512(b)(2)(B)), charged against Stern (relating to an incident in October 2016)
    • Count 20 – Witness tampering (18 U.S. Code § 1512(b)(2)(B)), charged against Stern (relating to a separate incident in 2016)
    • Count 21 – Obstruction of justice (18 U.S. Code § 1503), charged against Stern

    Among the various false documents filed by defendants with the IRS were falsified Forms 1099 (Miscellaneous Income), by filing which, “Stern and Morris caused false tax returns to be prepared and filed… that reported as income… the illegal kickbacks Stern had paid to Morris and others.” In addition, the same defendants “caused a false OIC to be prepared and filed with the IRS,” asserting that one of their associates, an unnamed Houston lawyer, “owed taxes on the inflated income falsely reported in his prior returns.” The full indictment, which is linked above, describes dozens of similar unlawful transactions and filings made over the course of multiple tax years.

    To date, only Morris has pleaded guilty, and is scheduled to be sentenced in February 2020. Each defendant faces up to five years for the conspiracy charge. Additionally, each count of willfully making or aiding/assisting with false returns is punishable by up to three years in prison. Obstruction of justice is punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, while witness tampering carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.


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