A judge ordered a disbarred Brunswick attorney to serve 2½ years in prison and repay more than $260,000 he stole from clients.

James Whittemore, 69, was indicted in September on two counts of theft by misapplication of property and one count of theft by unauthorized taking. He pleaded guilty to those charges Monday at the Cumberland County Courthouse. He remains free on $5,000 unsecured bond to recover from a broken leg and will begin serving his sentence in April.

Two victims spoke at the hearing about the significant financial and emotional consequences of the thefts. Whittemore listened quietly and made his own short statement of apology. Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler admonished the former lawyer and asked him when he realized what he was doing was wrong.

“As I was doing it, I realized it was wrong,” Whittemore said.

He paused for a long moment, leaning on the table in front of him, as he told the judge he has been in a deep depression.

“I have taken leave of the person that I considered myself to be, and this has been over a long period of time,” he said. “I can’t explain it to myself, I can’t explain it to my therapist, and I can’t even explain it to my family.”

“Well, you’ll have time in prison to think about that,” Wheeler said.

“I understand that,” Whittemore said.

The charges stemmed from three separate instances of theft dating as far back as 2013. In each case, Whittemore was holding money for his clients in a trust account. Instead of delivering the money to his clients, he took it for personal use.

In one complaint, Allyson Miller hired Whittemore to help distribute more than $150,000 from a trust to multiple beneficiaries. She told the judge that her mother-in-law left that money to the younger generation in the family, and her own children had counted on that money to buy homes and support themselves.

“I trusted you,” Miller said as she stood in court, her voice shaking. “Look at me.”

Whittemore turned to face her.

“I trusted you, and you took my trust,” Miller told him. “I don’t look at people like that anymore.”

In another instance, an insurance company awarded $100,000 to Amanda Ward and her children when her husband died in a motorcycle accident. Ward told the judge that Whittemore never passed the money to her, and she cried as she described the dire financial circumstances her family has experienced as a result.

“I thought the day my husband died was the worst day of my life,” Ward said. “That day has dragged on for more than five years because I put my trust in Mr. Whittemore.”

In the third complaint, the former attorney was supposed to hold $15,000 related to an easement purchase by the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust. No one from the land trust was present at the hearing Monday.

The judge asked the victims not to blame themselves for hiring Whittemore, a feeling both women alluded to during their statements. “It is embarrassing to me as a member of the bar when somebody who is also a member of the bar betrays the trust that we as lawyers carry,” Wheeler said.

The full sentence for Whittemore is six years with all but two-and-a-half suspended. He will also serve four years of probation. While the judge ordered Whittemore to pay restitution in full, including more than $30,000 that would have been the former lawyer’s contingency fee in one case, it is unclear how long it will take for the victims to see that money.

His pro bono attorney, Justin Andrus, told the court that Whittemore lost his house in a recent divorce and has few other assets. Whittemore sold a life insurance policy for $50,000 in order to make a start on the restitution, but he is far from making his former clients whole.

“I need to make as much effort as I possibly can to make this right,” Whittemore said. “I will never be able to fully even the scales on this matter, and for that I apologize to them, and I apologize to the court.”

The complaints also prompted action by the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, which petitioned the court for Whittemore’s suspension in July.

A judge granted suspension in August and ultimately ordered disbarment for Whittemore in November. He is not allowed to reapply for admission to the bar for 10 years, and his lawyer said Monday that he does not intend to ever do so.

The board of overseers administers the Maine Lawyer’s Fund for Client Protection, which is meant to reimburse clients for losses from an attorney’s dishonest conduct. Special Counsel Angela Morse told the court the fund has received 20 claims about Whittemore totaling $360,000 – the largest number about an individual attorney since the fund was established in 1997. The fund’s most recent annual report shows only one claim in 2017 and five in 2016.

In addition to the theft claims that prompted criminal charges, other former clients have said they did not receive services for legal fees paid to Whittemore. Those claims will be resolved through arbitration, but the fund’s rules cap reimbursements at $50,000 for an individual claimant and $100,000 per attorney. Because of Whittemore, the board of overseers will ask the court to increase that cap to $200,000.

“It is expected that won’t make all the claimants whole even if the cap is raised,” Morse said.

Both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer encouraged attorneys to get help if needed. They pointed to the board of overseers’ ethics helpline, as well as the Maine Assistance Program, which offers support to lawyers and judges who are struggling with substance abuse, depression or other problems.

Andrus said lawyers in solo practice can be isolated, and he encouraged them to seek out their peers in the legal profession.

“It’s often not too late to right the ship if they get help early enough,” Andrus said.

The website for Whittemore’s practice is no longer active, but it used to say that he received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. He attended Boston University Law School and received his law degree from the Maine School of Law. He opened his private practice in Brunswick in 2006.

Megan Gray can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mainemegan

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