A Reedsburg lawyer who stole more than $1.6 million from the trust of a deceased client and friend was sentenced Thursday to nearly four years in federal prison.
The family of the man who had appointed Kristin Lein to oversee the trust said her plunder effectively erased the dream he had to endow a nursing scholarship at South Dakota State University, his alma mater, in honor of his late first wife, which was to be a significant portion of the trust. He died in 2019.
Other beneficiaries were to be his second wife and his two daughters.
“She destroyed his dream,” the man’s widow, 89, said in court. She described her husband as her “last love,” and her “best friend.” She added that she felt “set up for this whole thing” by the lies that Lein told her about the healthy balance in the trust, and “for that I feel guilty.”
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But U.S. District Judge William Conley, who sentenced Lein to 45 months in prison, said nobody but Lein should feel they were to blame. A trusted friend, nobody suspected what Lein was doing, he said.
“The notion that you should have somehow realized you were being lied to your face,” Conley said, “is unspeakable.”
Lein, 61, pleaded guilty in June to wire fraud, money laundering and filing a false income tax return for stealing more than $1.6 million from her client’s estate trust account between 2019 and 2022 while acting as its trustee.
Lein used the money for myriad personal expenses, including the purchase of several vehicles and pieces of equipment, a large pole barn on her property and improvements to her rural Reedsburg home. According to a sentencing memorandum by Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Wegner, Lein spent more than $151,000 at Amazon.com and more than $90,000 at Chewy.com. She also spent more than $100,000 on construction and improvements at Richland Area Rescue, an animal shelter.
“The malevolence of the defendant’s actions is magnified by the fact that she did not need to do what she did,” Wegner wrote. “The defendant was not driven to commit her crimes by need, desperation, or the inability to legitimately earn a living. Despite the significant advantages the defendant enjoyed — including a first-rate education and a successful career as an attorney — she chose to steal a massive amount of money from clients who unfailingly trusted her. The defendant’s shocking betrayal of her clients left lasting emotional and economic damage that will never be fixed.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Conley: “It is hard to overstate the level of betrayal here by anyone, especially by a lawyer,” he said.
In a sentencing memo, Lein’s attorney, federal defender Joseph Bugni, said Lein’s crimes cannot simply be passed off as greed, but result from childhood trauma that led her to help animals as a way to cope with her mental health struggles. To that end, he wrote, she turned her home into a rescue “with scores of cats and a half-dozen raccoons all being housed and provided for with not just food but extreme medical care.”
In court, Lein was contrite.
“I don’t have the words to express how sorry I am,” she said. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. I know that makes me delusional. I know nothing I say will make this right.”
But Conley said there’s plenty she can do to demonstrate her remorse, most importantly working harder to sell her home and paying back the victims.
And secondly, he urged Lein to seek meaningful treatment to address the childhood trauma that he said has led to her obsession with animals. Amid that obsession, he said, she “lost track of humanity in the process.”
While she took more than $1.64 million from the estate, she had paid back some of the money by making occasional payments to the man’s widow to lull her into a false sense of security. Pursuant to a plea agreement, she was ordered to pay back the remaining $1.34 million.
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