Former attorney and Salem probate judge John W. Butts was sentenced Friday to a year in prison for embezzling $431,000 from two clients during what he and his attorney described as a downward spiral into alcoholism.
Butts, 66, of Salem, had pleaded no contest to first-degree larceny in January.
He faced up to two years in prison when he left his wife and one of his two adult sons on a bench in the gallery of a New London courtroom and stood before Superior Court Judge Hillary B. Strackbein Friday. He apologized to his clients, members of the legal profession and his family.
“I want my remorse to be known to the victims and anyone I’ve touched during my downward spiral,” Butts said.
He said he has no recollection of much of what happened during the past decade.
The Division of Criminal Justice began investigating the Sofia Kachorowsky probate case after being contacted by Norwich Probate Judge Charles K. Norris. According to an arrest warrant affidavit, Butts failed to distribute the assets from the estate and did not respond to written requests and phone calls from the Norwich probate court.
The criminal justice division and state police investigation revealed that Butts had deposited money from his client fund account — known as an Interest on Legal Trust Account and commonly referred to as an IOLTA — at Liberty Bank, into his personal account at People’s United Bank.
“I have been embarassed. I’ve been shamed. I’ve lost my standing in the community that I once had,” Butts said.
After the embezzlement was discovered in 2017, Butts went to a detoxification facility, completed a six month intensive outpatient program and has become involved in Alcoholics Anonymous, according to testimony. He surrendered his license to practice law, which had been suspended.
Prosecutor Kevin Shay said it was a difficult case because it involved an attorney who had breached the trust of his clients, and that the state’s position has always been that a period of incarceration is warranted. Shay said the proposed sentence of 10 years in prison, suspended after two years served, followed by five years probation fell in the mid-range of similar cases. He acknowledged that letters and a sentencing memorandum submitted by Butts’ attorney, Patrick A. Cosgrove, had given him a fuller picture of a good man whose career as an attorney ended badly.
Shay said both of the clients have been reimbursed, in part by Butts and in part by a state Client Security Fund that reimburses clients who have lost money or property due to the dishonest conduct of an attorney. Butts will be required to repay the Client Security Fund $277,000 if he receives a windfall.
Butts had been highly regarded as an attorney, probate judge and small claims commissioner and had been active in Salem town affiars, said Cosgrove, his attorney. His underlying alcohol addiction was triggered in 2007 when one of his sons was involved in a horrific accident, Cosgrove said, and continued with the subsequent crash of the real estate market, which had provided Butts with much of his business.
Judge Strackbein said when lawyers violate the trust of clients, it saddens everyone in the profession. She said people don’t realize the pain and danger associated with alcohol. She said she was willing to come off the two year sentence based on all the positive information she had received, but that a period of incarceration is necessary.
“A message has to go out to lawyers and public that we as a society cannot tolerate a flagrant breach of responsibility,” Strackbein said.
She ordered Butts to perform 100 hours of community service while on probation, continue his involvement with AA and cooperate with probation officials if they decide a substance abuse evaluation and treatment is necessary.
Butts thanked his attorney, handed his necktie to a marshal to return to his family and walked toward the courthouse lockup.