Federal judge sentences ex-banking CEO Laffitte for financial crimes

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sentenced Russell Laffitte, 53, to 84 months in prison.
Published: Aug. 1, 2023 at 7:28 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 1, 2023 at 7:24 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A federal judge spent much of Tuesday listening to arguments before handing down a sentence for the former CEO of Palmetto State Bank for his role in a series of financial crimes.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sentenced Russell Laffitte, 53, to 84 months in prison. That works out to be seven years. Laffitte will also have to pay $3.55 million in restitution.

A jury found Laffitte guilty of six financial crimes in November. Leffitte was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit bank or wire fraud, one count of bank fraud, one count of wire fraud and three counts of misapplication of bank funds.

At the sentencing hearing, which began at 10 a.m., federal prosecutors reiterated their ask for 108-137 months, or nine to 11.5 years in prison and a restitution payment to victims in the amount of about $3.55 million.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Limehouse says the feds offered Laffitte a few deals. One of them looked like 70-80 months in prison and paying victims back, but it stipulated that he would have to admit guilt and accept full responsibility. Laffitte maintained his innocence throughout his trial and into his statement to the victims at Tuesday’s sentencing.

The defense objected to the steep payment, but Gergel overruled the arguments, calling the crimes “clearly a complex scheme.” Gergel said all the moved money must be considered in the restitution paid to victims. After hearing from each side’s lawyers, Gergel ordered restitution in the amount of $3.55 million.

The defense has provided nine people to speak to Laffitte’s character, including friends, family members and a pastor. His daughter and wife became emotional during their time at the stand. Friends referred to him as “honest and trustworthy.”

Laffitte himself addressed U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel and then addressed some of the victims in the courtroom.

“What I do want to say and everyone who’s been involved in this case, is know how sorry I am for the errors in my judgment and the fact that my mistakes my failures to ask the right questions here,” Laffitte said.

He maintained his innocence in his statement, saying that he was not aware of the complex financial schemes that stole from his bank and the accounts he managed. Laffitte and his defense placed the blame on Alex Murdaugh as the mastermind of the financial schemes.

“But all the people who have represented conservatives, I should have taken more time to get to know them. And that is my fault. And I apologize for my mistake. I deeply sorry that I let them down,” Laffitte said.

Federal prosecutors have said Laffitte conspired with convicted murderer and former Hampton County lawyer Alex Murdaugh to commit the crimes. They have asked for a sentence of 108 to 137 months, amounting to between nine and 12 years for the crimes, They have also asked that he be forced to pay restitution to the victims.

“To this day, the defendant has failed to take any accountability for his own actions or show any contrition to the victims for the harm his actions caused. He has not provided any reason for the court to vary below the guideline range,” prosecutors said in a filing last week.

Gergel acknowledged the character witnesses but moved on, saying the people who lost money in the scheme Laffitte is convicted in are very vulnerable people. He compared the victims to chess pieces that were being moved around a board while Laffitte and Murdaugh made money.

“I’ve heard stories about the good deeds Mr. Laffitte has done and I believe they are accurate, but there is a broader picture here,” Gergel said.

Laffitte ended his speech by asking the judge for mercy, not so much for him, but for his family, who he said need him and who said in their own statements that he is the ‘lynchpin’ of the family.

Victims, including Hannah and Alania Plyer, Natasha Thomas and Pamela Pinckney spoke about their suffering as victims of Laffitte’s crimes.

“Some of the most influential people in the low country to most advantage of me, my sister and many other victims. And we were just little girls. I was an easy target,” Plyler said.

Laffitte managed the lawsuit winnings for the victims and ultimately is convicted of stealing that money and cutting checks to himself and Alex Murdaugh without telling the owners of the money. Plyler said she struggled to access her own money, and like other victims did not get the support they should have from the person in charge of their money.

“Sometimes it was for school clothes. Sometimes it was for school activities. Sometimes it was so I can have a meal at night. I was very vulnerable because I was so young and inexperienced. Sometimes I felt like a homeless person begging for change to find my next meal,” Plyler said.

Each victim won their settlements from wrongful death lawsuits where they lost loved ones.

“This entire process, reopened wounds that I was trying to close in my life. It made me relive any one of the worst days that happened to me in my life. That does not feel good at all,” Thomas said.

Gergel, throughout the hearing, emphasized his need to follow protocol and impose a sentence that is reasonable and deters future crime, but is not more than necessary.

Laffitte has twice asked for a new trial. Both requests were denied.