NEWARK, NJ - A lawyer portrayed in the movie “American Gangster” pleaded guilty Wednesday to stealing $20,000 from clients to make alimony payments, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said.
Richard Roberts, 81, took a plea agreement two days into his trial in Morris County on the same day his law partner took the stand. He will be required to permanently forfeit his law license because of pleading guilty to third-degree charges of perjury and theft.
Russell Crowe was cast as Roberts in “American Gangster,” which depicted his work as a former Essex County assistant prosecutor that lead to the indictment of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas. Denzel Washington played Lucas in the 2007 film.
“Instead of upholding the law and acting with honesty and integrity, as was his duty as an attorney, Roberts stole funds from his clients,” said Grewal in a statement. “He betrayed his oath and the clients who trusted him.”
This isn’t Roberts’ first run-in with the law. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges and his law license was suspended. He was sentenced to three years' probation in that case, NJ Advance Media reported at the time.
Now, Roberts faces up to 364 days in county jail plus probation.
Prosecutors said that from 2012 to 2013, Roberts and his law partner, Gerald M. Saluti Jr., conspired to steal funds from clients' settlement awards and funds that were supposed to be held in escrow accounts. More than $140,000 was stolen from four clients, prosecutors added.
Saluti, 51, pleaded guilty in February to a third-degree conspiracy charge. He permanently forfeited his law license and paid about $137,000 in restitution, prosecutors said.
The two men in 2013 dissolved their partnership that did work out of Newark as Saluti Law Group, prosecutors said.
Roberts also admitted that he falsely told authorities and testified under oath that he never authorized the law firm administrator, Gabriel Iannacone, to make his alimony payments. Iannacone, who is now deceased, pleaded guilty in 2017 to a third-degree conspiracy charge fin connection to making improper withdrawals from the attorney trust account.
“There are strict rules and fiduciary obligations concerning attorney trust accounts, but Roberts treated his firm’s trust account like his own personal bank account to pay alimony,” said Thomas Eicher, director of the state Office of Public Integrity and Accountability.
Roberts is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 29. Prosecutors will recommend probation during Saluti's Sept. 5 sentencing.