Lawyer who stole charities' $4.4m jailed

·3-min read

An upper-class former solicitor who stole $4.4 million destined for charities and medical bodies to buy a Bondi home and make his retirement more comfortable has been jailed for 10 years.

Mark Leo O'Brien, 64, misappropriated millions bequeathed by two clients of his Edgecliff firm between 2015 and 2018, including $2.74 million bound for the St Vincent de Paul Society and $1.39 million set to go to an eye foundation.

In addition to $4.4m bound for charities and hospitals, he also diverted a $1.7 million aged-care refundable deposit and smaller amounts - taking the total taken beyond $6.2 million.

After funnelling $1 million into his superannuation and more to cover the purchase of a $3.3 million home in Bondi, the solicitor attempted to further disguise the crimes when confronted about the source of his wealth in 2019 by his law firm partner.

He eventually accepted the fraud could not be characterised as "spur of the moment" and was in fact "long-planned", telling police his primary focus was "to make provision for our retirement".

The court also heard O'Brien had confided to medical experts in recent times he begun stealing elderly and dead clients' money when faced with business difficulties, poor earning capacities and no superannuation at the age of 58.

But Judge Robert Sutherland on Tuesday said O'Brien's abuse of his trusted position and fraud was well beyond the middle range of such offences and jailed him for at least six years.

O'Brien's wife, Therese O'Brien, who became aware of the fraud in 2015, was sentenced to three years' jail for dealing in crime proceeds totalling $4.6m.

The remorseful former bookkeeper, 63, will be allowed to serve the sentence in the community, provided she remains of good behaviour and completes 500 hours of community service.

The judge accepted the disgraced lawyer was remorseful and read out a number of glowing references, including from Monsignor Tony Doherty and a District Court retired judge O'Brien was related to through marriage.

But the judge dismissed a psychiatrist's "very qualified" opinion that a major depressive disorder may have caused the lawyer's offending.

That same doctor had also aired concerns O'Brien's socio-demographic factor may make "fitting in" in jail more difficult for the former Waverley College vice-captain.

Ms O'Brien likely suffered a major depressive disorder on and off since her unexpected pregnancy with O'Brien in 1979, a medical expert told the court.

Her deep Catholic faith and the prospect of disrupting her marriage also deterred her from reporting her husband's crimes, the court heard.

Judge Sutherland accepted she'd played a passive role in the long-standing marriage and not taken part in the couple's financial affairs, let alone the planning and execution of the misappropriation.

All of the money taken has been repaid but there was no evidence before the court that any payment had been made to cover an estimated $565,000 in interest fees owed to the charities and foundations.

O'Brien will be eligible for parole in March 2027.