Former state Rep. Thad Viers pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal money laundering charge that carries up to 10 years in prison, according to court records.
Viers, 36, will be sentenced in the coming months.
The former legislator and one-time front-runner for the 7th District Congressional seat was facing more than a dozen charges in connection with alleged racketeering-related financial transactions and lying to the IRS. All other counts are being dismissed as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.
The case against Viers stemmed from allegations that he tried to help law firm client Marlon Weaver hide assets from an insurance company that was trying to collect money on a construction bond.
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“I am criminally responsible because I was willfully blind, deliberately ignorant, and consciously avoided asking questions that any lawyer would ask,” Viers said in a prepared statement. “The other 13 charges, including lying to a federal agent, fraud, and conspiracy to commit fraud have been dismissed. I did not profit or realize any money from this violation. I take full responsibility for my actions and offer no excuses.”
Weaver has pleaded guilty to a felony money laundering charge. He admitted he tried to hide money he made from the 2010 sale of Bucksport Marina from an insurance company that had provided a $6 million bond for a road paving project his company was supposed to complete. Among the assets Weaver pledged as security for the bond was his one-fifth interest in the marina.
Investigators say Weaver back-dated documents to make it appear as if he had transferred his interest in the marina to his daughters prior to his company’s default on the road paving project.
Prosecutors say Viers knew Weaver was trying to hide the money and helped him form a limited liability corporation that purportedly transferred Weaver’s interest in the marina to his daughters. An indictment states Viers also made 12 withdrawals totaling $524,000 from a trust account he set up and gave that money to Weaver. Prosecutors say Viers knew that money came from Weaver’s illegal activity related to the marina sale.
They also say Viers lied to an IRS investigator when he said he was not aware that Weaver was trying to hide assets from the insurance company.
Despite the evidence, pleading guilty is the opposite of what Viers’ lawyer Trey Cockrell said his client would do just three months ago.
“It’s 100 percent going to trial,” Cockrell said in January.
But on Tuesday, Cockrell said his subsequent conversations with Viers and additional research led to the plea agreement.
Cockrell insists Viers should have recognized what was happening but didn’t until a crime had been committed.
“You can maybe excuse the first two or three transactions,” he said. “Maybe even four transactions. But 10 transactions? … There comes a level where he should have pushed back.”
Cockrell contends Viers didn’t concoct the scheme, but that “doesn’t wash his hands clean.”
Despite Viers’ mistakes, Cockrell said inexperience is partly to blame. He said Viers had not been an attorney long when Weaver hired him and he simply obeyed his client.
“He hasn’t been groomed or mentored” by a senior lawyer, Cockrell said.
In Viers’ statement, the ex-lawmaker conceded that he shouldn’t blame his client for his mistakes.
“As a lawyer I should have known better, but instead chose to turn a blind eye and inoculate myself from fault,” he said. “As a man I must take responsibility for my actions and am doing so. Please keep me and my family in your prayers.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Day said Viers has offered to help with other investigations as part of the plea agreement.
Arrangements like this one are not uncommon, Day said.
“We do that a lot,” he said. “The other counts, even though they can get dismissed, are considered as relevant conduct by the court.”
Once a pre-sentencing report has been completed by the U.S. Probation Office and both prosecutors and the defense have signed off on it, then Viers can be sentenced.
Had he been convicted of the original 14 charges, Viers faced up to 145 years in prison.
The maximum penalty for a money laundering conviction is imprisonment for 10 years and/or a fine of $250,000.
Viers served in the S.C. House of Representatives from 2003-12. He represented District 68, which includes Socastee. A graduate of Socastee High School and the University of South Carolina law school, Viers was a frontrunner for the open U.S. House District 7 seat in 2012 before withdrawing from the race when he was accused of stalking a former girlfriend.
Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.