As she grew more frail, elderly Philadelphia retiree Sarah Fauntleroy signed over power-of-attorney rights to a local lawyer John Conner.
Conner, 63, was a well-known criminal defense lawyer – but he also had a gambling problem.
On Thursday, Conner was sentenced in federal court for stealing more than $100,000 from the 88-year-old woman, whose caretaker and neighbor uncovered Conner’s crimes in 2017.
Conner will serve 46 months in prison; his lawyer Arnold Joseph requested that Conner be sent to the Fairton, N.J., correctional institute. Fauntleroy wanted to attend, according to prosecutors, but she died Sunday.
What’s so unusual about Conner isn’t just that he stole from an elderly client, but that the Temple Law graduate worked as a high-profile lawyer with Cozen and O’Conner, and for many years as a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. He started his own practice in 1995.
Prosecutors said the Conner case is part of a national sweep of financial elder abuse crimes that U.S. Attorney William “Bill” McSwain is pursuing under U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s initiative.
“The defendant’s conduct in this case was egregious,” said McSwain. “Stealing an elderly woman’s life savings, gambling it away at casinos, and then lying about it to federal agents – all as an officer of the court, an attorney who took an oath to act in the best interest of his clients and with a high moral standard.”
Although she had suffered a stroke, Fauntleroy’s past testimony against Conner was part of the trial.
Conner used her ATM card at casinos to withdraw money from Fauntleroy’s bank accounts in the amount of $105,632.01, according to court filings.
She was left with $15.07.
Homer Hills, a close friend and neighbor in Brewerytown, alerted the authorities after Fauntleroy’s phone and electricity were shut off. Hills and Fauntleroy’s caretaker suspected Conner of stealing her assets.
Conner subsequently lied to FBI agents and said Fauntleroy had given him permission to “borrow” nearly all of her money so that he could gamble at Parx and Sugarhouse casinos in Philadelphia and Tropicana and Borgata in Atlantic City, according to prosecutor Mark Dubnoff.
“Elder fraud is a pernicious crime, preying on the most vulnerable in society. She trusted him … and he betrayed that trust,” Dubnoff said during the hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
In 2016, Fauntleroy asked her brother for help handling her affairs and health care, and he introduced her to Conner. Fauntleroy was impressed and signed a power-of-attorney agreement that granted Conner authority to manage her finances and pay her bills.
As part of the agreement, Conner promised to keep his assets separate from hers. Shortly after executing the POA, however, Conner added himself as a signatory to a checking account that she maintained at Wells Fargo Bank and obtained an ATM card to withdraw funds.
Conner also opened a joint savings account at Wells Fargo in his and Fauntleroy’s names. He then liquidated an annuity she had set up for her niece and deposited the proceeds, which exceeded $110,000, into that account.
Over eight months, Conner used the POA agreement to drain nearly all of Fauntleroy’s money from her bank accounts. From Aug. 16, 2016, until April 22, 2017, Conner used the ATM card to make 176 cash withdrawals at casinos. Checks to her caregivers bounced.
Fauntleroy revoked Conner’s POA in April 2017 and the U.S. Attorney charged him in 2018. He was convicted in February 2019, and in addition to prison time, Conner received three years supervised release, an order to forfeit $14,923 to the government and to pay an additional $14,923 in restitution to Fauntleroy’s estate.
“I’m very happy with the sentence,” said Hills, who attended the hearing. “He just stepped in and preyed on her. He didn’t have an epiphany about a gambling addiction. He got caught.”
Conner testified that the pressure and loneliness of caring for his 95-year-old father seven days a week and running a law practice prompted him to turn to gambling -- in particular, slot machines.
“I’m not a perfect man,” he told the judge. “I’m a gambling addict. I gambled my own money until I ran out. Then I used her card. I’ve learned that a compulsive gambler’s judgment is flawed.”