Attorney stole $250K from vulnerable clients she was appointed to protect, officials say

An attorney “betrayed” her clients’ trust in a $250,000 scheme to defraud people she had been appointed to protect, Alabama officials said.

Teresa Darwin Phillips has now been sentenced to 20 years in prison, Alabama’s attorney general Steve Marshall announced in a Jan. 29 news release.

Phillips, 43, was a DeKalb County attorney and candidate for district judge before a 2020 investigation revealed she had defrauded “vulnerable” clients while acting on their behalf, officials said.

The district attorney’s office said it was able to uncover the attorney’s “scheme to use the funds given to her by clients and other elderly individuals for whom she had been appointed as legal guardian or conservator for her own personal gain.”

An attorney may be appointed someone’s guardian or conservator if they are declared incapacitated and unable to make financial or personal decisions, according to Alabama law.

“Once a lawyer has gained the trust of a client, particularly an elderly client, they owe that client the highest degree of (honesty) and loyalty,” Marshall said in the release. “To see that trust betrayed on such a wide scale warrants a severe reaction from the justice system.”

In November 2022, Phillips pleaded guilty to nine charges, including multiple counts each of financial exploitation of the elderly, theft of property and theft by deception, according to the plea agreement obtained by McClatchy News.

Eight other charges, including forgery and unauthorized practice of law, were dropped as part of her plea agreement.

In addition to serving 20 years in prison, Phillips is also ordered to pay more than $181,000 in restitution to a handful of victims and their estates, including $94,000 to one individual, according to the plea.

“This case should serve as yet another warning to attorneys across our state seeking to take advantage of vulnerable clients — you will be found out and held accountable,” Marshall said.

McClatchy News reached out to Phillips’ attorney on Jan. 29 but did not immediately receive a response.

DeKalb County is in northeast Alabama along the Georgia border, about 70 miles southeast of Huntsville.

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