Former lawyer pleads guilty

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- James M. 'Tres' Bernhard III, center, walks toward the Baton Rouge federal courthouse Wednesday with his lawyers, former U.S. Attorney David R. Dugas, left, and Michael A. Villa Jr., of Dallas. Bernhard later pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and admitted he schemed to take $453,123 from his former law firm. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- James M. 'Tres' Bernhard III, center, walks toward the Baton Rouge federal courthouse Wednesday with his lawyers, former U.S. Attorney David R. Dugas, left, and Michael A. Villa Jr., of Dallas. Bernhard later pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and admitted he schemed to take $453,123 from his former law firm.

James M. “Tres” Bernhard III pleaded guilty Wednesday in Baton Rouge federal court to one count of wire fraud and admitted that he schemed to divert $453,123 of his former law firm’s money to his personal use.

Flanked by his attorneys, former U.S. Attorney David R. Dugas and Dallas attorney Michael A. Villa Jr., Bernhard told Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson that he has been under a psychiatrist’s care and is taking medically prescribed drugs.

Both Dugas and Villa told the judge they believed Bernhard was mentally competent and aware of the ramifications of his guilty plea.

Jackson asked Bernhard, 36, whether he knew why he was in court.

“I’m in court today because I’m charged … with wire fraud,” replied Bernhard, the son of Shaw Group Inc. Chairman Jim Bernhard.

Jackson then asked whether Bernhard understood he would be admitting that he defrauded his former law firm.

“Yes, your honor,” Bernhard said, before adding: “Guilty, your honor.”

Jackson noted that the wire fraud conviction carries a possible penalty of 20 years in prison and possible fine of $250,000. Bernhard said he understood those possibilities.

Bernhard’s federal investigation followed a civil suit filed against him in 19th Judicial District Court by his former firm, Crawford Lewis PLLC. That civil suit was settled in July, court records show. Mary Olive Pierson, the law firm’s lawyer, stated in court records that the opposing sides had reached “a full and complete settlement.”

Bernhard permanently resigned from the practice of law, according to a May 2 order of the Louisiana Supreme Court. The high court added that Bernhard now is “permanently prohibited from seeking admission to the practice of law in any jurisdiction.”

On Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Stevens read a statement in which Bernhard admitted he used $453,123 of the law firm’s money for his personal benefit and that he wire transferred $93,750 of those funds to an account he controlled in Oklahoma.

Jackson accepted Bernhard’s guilty plea and scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 23.