A “naive” solicitor fell victim to a classic scam when he handed over €242,000 client monies on the promise of getting €26.8 million from a Nigerian oil company, the High Court has been told.
No client of James J Maher, formerly practising as a partner in James Maher & Co, Essex Quay, Dublin, was left out of pocket because Mr Maher subsequently got an inheritance from an uncle which enabled him pay the money back, the court also heard.
Mr Maher (53) was subsequently diagnosed as having suffered from bipolar disorder throughout his life. Two psychiatrists differed over whether this was the cause of him falling for the scam, the court heard.
The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, said he would not strike off Mr Maher but would order he may only practise in the future subject to certain restrictions.
These include that he should only work as an assistant solicitor and not be permitted to sign cheques or bank transfers.
The court heard the scam arose at a time in Mr Maher’s life when he was having marriage difficulties, including the fact he and his wife were unable to have children.
Both he and his wife believed she had cancer, the court heard.
Mr Maher said his wife was also “blaming me because I had brought her to Castleknock and kept her there for three years when she wanted to be in Churchtown where she was from”.
The court heard an architect client, for whom Mr Maher had previously acted, had told Mr Maher the architect’s wife was also dying of cancer in England, and he wanted to get €26.8 million owed to him by the “National Petroleum Company of Nigeria” for work the architect did on an oil pipeline.
Mr Maher was told the architect first needed to send money to Nigeria to get “money laundering clearance and terrorist clearance” before the €26 million would be sent over and lodged in the solicitor’s account.
Mr Maher made several withdrawals from his client account, totalling €242,219, and paid it to the architect between April and September 2011.
Mr Maher told a Law Society investigating accountant he was in contact with a number of people in Nigeria, including the governor of its Central Bank, the president of the Nigerian senate and the director of its Department of Finance.
The accountant also said Mr Maher had referred to US President Barack Obama being involved in meetings with Nigerian officials with a view to getting the money released. Asked by Mr Justice Kearns was he not surprised to be told the architect was owed €26 million, Mr Maher said he was shown documentation which seemed to support what he was being told.
“I was very vulnerable and naive, but I often said I would prefer to be naive rather than cynical,” he said.
As the architect’s wife was dying of cancer and because he wanted to undo “the damage I had done in relation to my own wife”, he ended up being “snared into this”, Mr Maher said.
He had had difficulties throughout his life with an alcoholic father and a mother who suffered from depression.
Between the ages of one and three he had lived with an uncle before going back to his parents, even though the uncle had wanted to adopt him.
He was now on medication, and while his only income was €188 per week in disability benefit, he hoped he could eventually go back into practice if he could find a solicitor’s firm willing to employ him.
His counsel, Seamus Ó Tuathail, said he was the type of person who could readily sympathise with others but “perhaps overdo it”.
Paul Anthony McDermott BL, for the Law Society, said Mr Maher had fallen for the “classic scam” whereby a person is informed, usually by email, they had won the lottery in Nigeria and all they had to do was forward their bank details and €5,000 to collect their winnings.
A psychiatrist for the Law Society had found his condition was triggered by falling victim to the scam and expressed concern there could be another lack of judgment in the future, Mr McDermott said.
Mr Justice Kearns said this had to rank “among the most extraordinary cases” to come before his court in relation to solicitors.