Judge demands harsh sentence for ex-attorney accused of embezzling millions from Utah clients

Former Salt Lake City attorney Calvin Curtis faced about six years in prison as part of a plea agreement. The judge insisted on more prison time.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic passes the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 13, 2020. At a hearing on Tuesday, a federal judge tossed out a sentencing proposal for former Salt Lake City estate attorney Calvin Curtis, demanding that the lawyer accused of defrauding his clients of millions receive a harsher prison sentence.

A federal judge in Utah tossed out a sentencing proposal Tuesday for former Salt Lake City estate attorney Calvin Curtis, demanding that the man accused of defrauding his clients out of millions receive a harsher prison sentence.

The proposal of about six years in prison had been agreed upon by federal prosecutors and Curtis’ defense attorney ahead of the hearing. U.S. District Judge David Barlow was expected to take it into consideration before imposing a sentence.

Instead, rejecting the proposal altogether, Barlow said that as Curtis allegedly stole $12.7 million from 26 of his clients — all elderly, disabled or incapacitated — over about 13 years, the suspected fraud was “cold-blooded, premeditated and repeated.”

Curtis “perverted” the law, Barlow continued, and “enriched himself on the backs of those who needed his help.”

‘Lavish lifestyle’

Prosecutors have argued Curtis used that money to fund a “lavish lifestyle,” which included frequent travel, expensive gifts, tickets to basketball and football games, and pricey renovations and mortgage payments on his former mansion home and office on South Temple.

Assistant U.S. attorney Ruth Hackford-Peer said in Tuesday’s hearing that the proposed sentence of 73 months in prison was not a perfect resolution, “but it’s a good one.”

Several of Curtis’ victims attended the hearing, filling the courtroom along with family members and caregivers. One mother pushed in a stroller her disabled 9-year-old daughter, who wore a yellow bow in her hair and braces on both wrists.

They were expecting Barlow to issue a sentence, and many made statements during the hearing. One woman walked up to the podium while holding onto a loved one’s arm to steady herself. A man in a wheelchair gave 62-year-old Curtis a long look as he passed the table where Curtis sat with his attorney.

As the victims shared their stories of how devastating it has been to lose money that they would have used for various needs such as food, clothing, medicine and health care, a common refrain was for Barlow to impose the maximum sentence.

“I don’t think Calvin is human,” one woman said quietly. “I feel that he’s the devil.”

In a statement Tuesday, Curtis said, “A lot of people have talked about me, and most of what they have said is true. I’m very sorry for that.”

‘Heinous’ crimes

When it came time for Barlow to announce a decision, he said the proposed prison sentence — plus a restitution judgment of $12.7 million and supervised release for three years as part of Curtis’ plea agreement — was not harsh enough.

Since Curtis’ crimes were “so heinous,” Barlow said, he should receive a prison sentence at the higher end of the range that is customary in such a case, which is 10 years.

The judge added that he is “not convinced” that Curtis — who is charged with wire fraud and money laundering — takes responsibility for his actions or feels remorse.

Barlow asked the attorneys for both sides to negotiate again and come up with a new sentencing proposal. A new hearing date was not immediately set.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Laura Milliken Gray, an attorney for a woman with Alzheimer’s disease from whom Curtis has admitted to embezzling more than $9 million, called Barlow’s decision a “surprise.”

Her client’s daughter-in-law, Sherry McConkey, said she is “excited” at the prospect of Curtis getting more time in prison than expected. But she added that it’s “hard” the case will go on longer, “because I just want it to be over and done with.”

Greg Skordas, Curtis’ attorney, said, “We were not surprised. We’re disappointed.”

“We came a long way and hoped to be able to seal the deal today,” he continued. “It’s not the end. We’re not finished.”