Baton Rouge resident James M. “Tres” Bernhard III was charged Tuesday with wire fraud by federal prosecutors who alleged he diverted $453,123 from his former law firm’s trust account to his personal use.
The single wire fraud charge alleges Bernhard employed “fraudulent misrepresentations” to cause the law firm to send $93,750 to a bank account he controlled.
The charge adds, however, “In all, Bernhard fraudulently directed approximately $453,123 from the law firm’s trust account.”
Bernhard, son of Shaw Group Inc. Chairman Jim Bernhard, has permanently resigned from the practice of law, according to a May 2 order of the Louisiana Supreme Court. The high court order stated Bernhard now is “permanently prohibited from seeking admission to the practice of law in any jurisdiction.”
The Supreme Court order was issued two days after the law firm of Crawford Lewis PLLC obtained a restraining order in Baton Rouge against Bernhard, 36, from state District Judge R. Michael Caldwell. The judge ordered Bernhard not to negotiate or settle any claims involving the law firm’s clients.
Crawford Lewis alleged in its lawsuit that Tres Bernhard admitted in March he created a bogus $600,000 check. The law firm also said Bernhard was fired that same day.
Crawford Lewis alleged in its suit that Tres Bernhard had misappropriated client and law firm funds to settle his personal debts. And the firm alleged he “sold invalid tax credits to third parties.”
Bernhard had been licensed to practice law in Louisiana since October 2003, according to the website for the Louisiana State Bar Association.
The dispute between Crawford Lewis and Bernhard was settled out of court in July, court records show.
Mary Olive Pierson, attorney for Crawford Lewis, told Caldwell on July 18: “The parties have reached a full and complete settlement and compromise related to all of the claims.” Pierson then asked for dismissal of the case.
Caldwell signed that dismissal on July 24.
Now, however, the felony wire fraud charge pending against Bernhard carries a possible prison term of 20 years and possible fines that could total more than $250,000, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Walt Green said in a statement Tuesday. Green and Assistant U.S. Attorney Rich Bourgeois signed the charge.
A bill of information was used to charge Bernhard instead of sending the case to a jury for possible indictment. Under federal rules, however, the matter would have to be forwarded to a grand jury next month unless Bernhard either pleaded guilty or signed a waiver of his right to grand jury consideration of prosecutors’ evidence.
Bernhard could not be located for comment Tuesday.
Court records that became public late Tuesday show Bernhard signed the waiver. The document also was signed by Bernhard attorneys Michael A. Villa Jr., of Dallas, and former U.S. Attorney David R. Dugas, who is now in private practice in Baton Rouge.
A request for comment was left on Dugas’ personal voice mail and his email address, but no response was received. The same was true of requests for comment left for Villa in Dallas.
Bernhard’s criminal case is assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson.