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Former lawyer pleads guilty to federal charges

A former attorney who was disbarred after he paid his son’s school tuition directly from his trust account now has pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion in connection with misuse of his law practice finances.

Steven F. Helm of Salem faces up to 23 years in prison on the charges, although prosecutors have agreed to recommend a sentence at the low end of the guideline range. That range is 27 to 33 months, according to Helm’s attorney, David D. Walker of Salem. He said the numbers could change based on a presentence report.

Court records show Helm entered his plea in an initial appearance Wednesday. No date has been set for sentencing, according to online records.

Helm spent over $130,000 of client money in his trust account for travel, tuition and other personal uses in 2009, according to a statement of facts he endorsed. His personal tax return failed to include the payments from his trust account, the statement said.

Helm agreed to revocation of his law license in March. A Virginia State Bar investigation showed Helm had delayed making payments on behalf of three clients, had overdrawn his trust account on several occasions and paid his son’s school tuition directly from that account.

Roanoke lawyer Tommy Joe Williams was appointed as a receiver to account for the finances of Helm’s practice. Williams said all claims from Helm clients have either been paid or arrangements are being made to pay them. The money in the trust account was gone, but the practice had sufficient general operating money to pay the client claims, he said.

General creditors will not get paid, he said.

Walker acknowledged Helm stole from his trust account. He said Helm “spiraled out of control” after an unspecified life-altering event.  After recovering, Helm saved enough before terminating his law practice to pay not only his obligations to clients, but also the costs of the VSB investigation and the receivership, Walker said.

Walker said he hopes Helm’s circumstances will lead the judge to sentence below the guidelines.

By Peter Vieth

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