A U.S. district judge today sentenced former attorney James M. “Tres” Bernhard III to 27 months in federal prison for committing wire fraud and diverting nearly $500,000 in funds from his former law firm to his own personal use.
Judge Brian Jackson issued the sentence after about 20 minutes of arguments in Baton Rouge today, mostly from Bernhard’s attorney, Michael Villa, who argued the 36-year-old should receive a sentence of probation, community service and, possibly, home incarceration so that he could continue to receive intensive mental health treatments for a variety of mental and cognitive illnesses.
“These are not diagnoses of convenience,” Villa said, citing two physicians’ reports detailing Bernhard’s lifelong history of mental illness. “There is a long history of mental instability … that we are only now seeking treatment for … that should have been sought long ago.”
Bernhard, son of the Shaw Group founder Jim Bernhard, was present for the sentencing and apologized to his former law firm, his family and the community.
“I sincerely regret the events that led me to be here today,” said Bernhard, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to the wire fraud charge.
The criminal charge was filed last fall, not long after Bernhard settled a civil law suit that had been filed by his former law firm, Crawford Lewis, and some of its clients. That suit alleged Bernhard sold invalid movie tax credits to third parties then misappropriated the proceeds from the sale, using them for his personal gain. Last May, Bernhard was permanently disbarred.
In court today, Villa said disbarment, a felony conviction and ongoing mental health treatment should serve as punishment enough for his client’s crime. But Jackson disagreed, telling Bernhard, “You have a history of mental illness that is well-documented … but you stole almost $500,000 from your law firm … and there seems to have been no reason for that, except maybe pride … your conduct was quite serious.”
Bernhard must report to prison July 8. Jackson says he will recommend incarceration in a minimum security prison in Pensacola, Fla.