A Friend in Need

Stephen Rondestvedt was more than an attorney in the eyes of his clients. He was a friend, and often their only advocate. Which made it pretty easy to rob them blind.

 Marianne Brandt's death came as no surprise to anyone. Since suffering a heart attack in 1994, she had seen her health spiral steadily downward. By the time the end came, she had been forced to move into a nursing home.

On the day Brandt died, her sister, Kathleen Kelly, returned to her home in Forest Lake to find a large envelope in the mailbox. Because of Brandt's weakened state, Kelly had recently taken over responsibility for her sister's legal affairs. Most significantly, she was trying to determine what had become of a disability claim filed by Brandt in 1998 that, as far as she knew, had never been settled. Brandt had left her job as an executive assistant with the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association in 1998 because she was too weak to continue performing her duties, but the insurance company refused to pay her disability benefits. For the last five years of Brandt's life, her only income was a Social Security check.

Brandt had hired an attorney, Stephen Rondestvedt, to fight the insurance company's decision, but after more than five years she still hadn't seen a dime. "I'm sure my sister just kind of gave up on it," Kelly says. "She was weak and spent most of her time doing nothing. She was just tired."

Tim Lane

Kelly had recently requested copies of all documents related to her sister's claim from Rondestvedt. So she assumed that the bulging envelope in her mailbox was the case file. "I thought, my goodness, he got right on it," she recalls.

Instead, what Kelly discovered in the mailbox was a package from the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, a statewide organization that is charged with disciplining unscrupulous attorneys. A letter inside the envelope informed her that Rondestvedt had been disbarred and was facing possible criminal charges.

Kelly eventually determined that her sister's disability claim had been settled more than two years earlier, for just $10,000. Rondestvedt had forged Brandt's signature, cashed the check, and simply kept the money for himself. "It diverted my sorrow into a little anger," Kelly says.

Kelly was far from the only person receiving a package from the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility that week. The organization mailed out many such letters to Rondestvedt's clients. All told, according to files compiled by the Client Security Board and the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, over a four-year period, the 40-year-old, married father of three stole almost a million dollars from his clients. The thefts, stemming from personal injury cases, ranged from $3,000 to more than $100,000.

The Minnesota Client Security Board, a trust set up by the state bar association to compensate people who have been defrauded by lawyers, has so far paid out $746,000 in claims to 22 people--the greatest sum spent on any single case since the board was established in 1988. In fact, the previous record for an entire year of claims was $705,524, doled out in 1996. There are still three complaints against Rondestvedt that have not yet been resolved.

What's most striking about the Rondestvedt case is that, like Brandt, most of the people that the scofflaw attorney stole money from were poor and disabled. Some had known Rondestvedt for years and relied on him for personal advice and financial counsel. He asked after their children and pets, socialized with them in bars and restaurants. One former client, Clark Zaccardi, had even asked Rondestvedt to be the best man in his upcoming wedding.

"My whole family knows Steve personally," says Zaccardi, whose parents were swindled out of about $75,000 by Rondestvedt. "Steve always pretended that my mom was his mom. He called my dad 'Dad.'"

According to the United States District Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case, Rondestvedt pumped at least $200,000 of the money into his Lynnhurst-neighborhood home just off Lake Harriet. He often boasted about his frequent trips to Paris and always insisted on picking up dinner tabs.

He funded his lavish lifestyle off the usually meager disability settlements of folks who in many cases had trouble putting food on their own tables.

Mike Sohrweide, for example, was taken for $94,000. In a form filled out for the Client Security Board last fall, Sohrweide succinctly detailed his fiscal and psychological state. "Besides the money, deeper depression than before," he wrote. "Can't finish associates degree, may lose truck, home & land."

John Eric Love was duped out of $14,287. "I needed the money desperately," he wrote to the Client Security Board. "Because of my back injury and chronic pain I am unable to work 40 hours per week. I'm only working part time. I cannot live on air! I have 3 children."

The lawyer's crimes are not completely without precedent. In 1999, Minneapolis attorney David Moskal was sentenced to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to three counts of mail fraud stemming from thefts of nearly $2.5 million from his clients. He too practiced personal injury law and preyed on vulnerable adults. "The parallels are striking," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Hank Shea, who prosecuted both cases. "It's a question of greed combined with the arrogance that you're not going to get caught." (Funds from the Client Security Board were not tapped in Moskal's case, because his former law firm, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, compensated the victims.)

Next Page »