Less than two weeks before Bruce Matson is set to go in front of a federal judge to learn his fate, representatives from both sides of his criminal case have weighed in on how much time the disgraced veteran Richmond lawyer should spend behind bars.
The longtime former LeClairRyan attorney, who has admitted to stealing several million dollars from the LandAmerica bankruptcy estate while serving as trustee, has asked for a prison sentence of no more than 37 months, according to court filings Monday.
Federal prosecutors recommend a punishment of no less than 46 months and a $250,000 fine.
Judge John Gibney will have the ultimate say at a sentencing hearing Nov. 22 at Richmond’s federal courthouse. Matson has pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The pre-sentencing filings in the case this week paint two pictures of Matson, who is now 64-years-old and has been disbarred.
Dozens of letters filed with the court on Matson’s behalf pray for leniency from the judge, extolling an otherwise standup lawyer, husband, father, friend and church-goer who in their eyes made an inexplicable, out-of-character error in judgment.
“Bruce Matson has had a tremendous fall from grace,” his attorneys wrote in a 26-page memo this week. “He stands before this court not only humiliated and ashamed but with steadfast contrition. He hopes that, after serving his sentence, he can return to his family and community and re-establish himself as a productive, contributing member of society.”
The prosecution sees a calculating, multi-year scheme built on Matson abusing his stature in the relatively small circle of high-level bankruptcy attorneys and sullying the near-sacred trust given to such trustees.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office describes “furious but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to conceal a course of criminal conduct that spanned from 2015 to 2019, during which time the defendant used his position as a court-appointed fiduciary to embezzle, misappropriate, and dissipate more than $4 million from the bankruptcy trust he had been entrusted with.
“His long expertise in bankruptcy matters ensured that he knew when and where his opportunities for grift lay,” the prosecution said in its 13-page argument.
Those in Matson’s camp, while not excusing his crimes, argue that extraordinary circumstances in his personal life, ignited further by the then-looming demise of LeClairRyan, led to his uncharacteristic actions. He has no prior criminal record.
“We respectfully submit that this storm of events led an otherwise law-abiding man to engage in wrongful conduct,” his attorneys wrote. Many details of his personal and familial struggles are redacted in court filings out of privacy concerns for family members.
Prosecutors say Matson’s theft was discovered mainly because of LeClairRyan’s bankruptcy, which led to its finances being combed through by a trustee.
“The collapse of the defendant’s law firm produced – for the defendant, at least – an unwelcome review of the law firm’s active engagements,” including his pillaging of the millions of dollars in the LandAmerica bankruptcy wind-down account, prosecutors state. “Aware that close scrutiny would expose his criminal conduct, the defendant engaged in a course of obstructive conduct.”
The obstructions in question include Matson lying in letters and in-person testimony to the bankruptcy court once the missing LandAmerica funds were discovered in 2019. He also created fraudulent bank accounts and padded the LandAmerica wind-down budget to allow funds to flow more freely and undetected.
Matson was ultimately removed, despite his objections, as LandAmerica’s trustee, a position he held since the company’s collapse in 2008. He later admitted to skimming from another bankruptcy trustee case.
“The defendant cannot credibly argue that his actions were the result of a momentary lapse in judgment, or the sad byproduct of a particularly stressful time period,” the prosecution states.
Both sides do agree that Matson has taken full responsibility for his crimes, has cooperated with the government’s investigation, paid back all of the money stolen and is aware that what he’s done deserves punishment.
The dozens of letters of support filed with the court came from family members, fellow attorneys, former legal assistants, friends, fellow church members, and pals from his time on the Appalachian trail.
Cheryl Matson, his wife of more than 40 years, described to Judge Gibney an exemplary, loving husband and father to their two daughters, while also trying to reconcile how he and his family ended up in this situation.
“While we all stumble, I am still in absolute shock and at a total loss to understand Bruce’s missteps in this matter as they are not at all consistent with the man I know as my husband,” Mrs. Matson wrote. “These are conditions I could never have imagined.”
Letters also describe numerous instances of his generosity, including helping family members, employees and even relative strangers in need. He consistently helped other attorneys and legal assistants progress in their careers, letters state.
Among the letters is one from Gary LeClair, co-founder and namesake of LeClairRyan who worked with Matson for decades as the firm’s longtime leader. Now with Williams Mullen, LeClair is himself ensnared in a legal battle with LeClaiRyan’s bankruptcy trustee.
He emphasized that his relationship with Matson was not as one of close friendship, but of his being a trusted, loyal colleague in the context of running a law firm.
“For most everything under the sun, there has been a season for us,” LeClair said of all he and Matson went through at the firm. “And for every one of those seasons, Bruce has been a strong and constant pillar of virtue. I have never doubted his inherent goodness.”
LeClair, who states in the letter that he and Matson have never discussed the LandAmerica matter, laments that he didn’t do more to help Matson as things went awry.
“I must, however, confess that when Bruce could have benefited from a partner’s helping hand, I sat idly by. Perhaps when the strong stumble, we should not assume that they will always quickly and without error right themselves,” LeClair said.
Of the 50-or-so letters submitted to the court, LeClair’s is one of the few that attempts to explain at-length why Matson may have strayed from his seemingly virtuous path. He theorized it was due to a man trying to do too much in the face of mounting pressures from his personal and professional lives.
“The top tier respected and trusted partner that I had known now was not himself and appeared scattered and, in my view, deeply distracted and overly stressed,” LeClair wrote, describing Matson’s state during the time in question. “While brilliant, Bruce was never one for details and his best work was accomplished when he executed matters with the detailed support and review of others. His state in late 2018 and the changes experienced by his law firm during that period exacerbated that weakness.
“The impending failure of our firm during the summer of 2019, and the events leading up to it, added to Bruce’s state,” LeClair added. “Bruce believed in our values and invested the best years of his career in practicing law there and leading it. A failure of his life’s work was crushing.”