A former Lynchburg-area estate planning attorney and prosecutor pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to fraudulently wiring money from her elderly clients.
Cherie Anne Washburn, 45, of Lynchburg, was charged with 13 total crimes in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in an October indictment. In exchange for Washburn’s pleas to two counts of wire fraud and one count of making a false statement to a mortgage lender, prosecutors agreed to drop 10 of the charges against her.
The charges stem from a scheme against two of her clients where, using Washburn’s access as their power of attorney, she wired thousands or tens of thousands of dollars at a time in personal transactions for her own benefit, according to court documents.
Prosecutors said at Washburn’s virtual plea hearing Friday that she’d owe around $233,000 total in restitution, a figure Washburn and her attorney, Paul Beers, disputed.
Washburn received her law license in 2011, working first out of a Roanoke-based civil firm and then as a prosecutor in Appomattox County and then in Campbell County. She left Campbell County in June 2015 for private practice in Forest and was named power of attorney for one of the victims in the case about five months later, according to court documents.
Indictments filed against Washburn detail regular withdrawals and account transfers from two victims starting in November 2016. Civil cases involving both victims surfaced in Lynchburg Circuit Court in 2018, one of them triggered by unusual account activity noticed by Adult Protective Services workers.
Two women named as executors of one of the victims’ estate — a woman named Carol Adams, who died in January 2019 — accused Washburn of misappropriating around $250,000 of Adams’ money before Washburn was removed as power of attorney in May 2018.
Washburn had named herself as Adams’ beneficiary for two investment accounts worth almost $300,000, according to indictments, told mortgage lenders she was Adams’ great-niece while using Adam’s money to purchase a house and funneled more than $40,000 of both victims’ money into a local charity in a move to bolster her career.
Amid the civil cases, officials with the Virginia State Bar held proceedings to revoke Washburn’s license to practice law. In consenting to having her license revoked, she affirmed allegations of misconduct against her.
Her plea hearing was scheduled a little more than a week after prosecutors previewed evidence they’d be presenting in her case — part of it directly relating to the fraud allegations and part of it regarding her past as a criminal prosecutor.
“The Defendant was terminated from her position as an Assistant Commonwealth Attorney in Campbell County due, in part, to false statements she made to her supervisor,” court documents state.
U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon also ruled the Virginia State Bar’s revocation documentation couldn’t be excluded as evidence in the case.
Given the chance to speak at Friday’s hearing, Washburn said she intended for Adams to move into the house she bought with Adams’ money and added Adams felt like family.
“I was overwhelmed at that time,” she said. “I was not keeping good records or notes and I transferred some of her money to cover some of my personal expenses. I always intended to pay it back. I know that that was wrong.”
Earlier this week, the Virginia State Bar announced it had authorized a $75,000 payment to the estate of one of Washburn’s deceased clients from its Clients’ Protection Fund, the highest amount that can be paid to any one person. Mark Bold, the attorney representing Adams’ estate, confirmed that relief has been paid to the estate.
Several civil cases involving Adams’ estate and Washburn still are pending in Lynchburg Circuit Court. Bold said while the executors are happy with the guilty pleas, “we are frustrated and angry that Mrs. Washburn took the occasion to casually minimize and downplay her elaborate scheme of theft and exploitation to a mistake of failing to keep good records; even portraying her relationship with Mrs. Adams to that of a family member.”
Washburn told the court she’d report herself to the U.S. Marshal’s office in Lynchburg on July 30 in hopes of receiving sentencing credit since she’s pregnant.
Her potential sentence ranges from six months to a little more than two years, prosecutors said. No sentencing date has been scheduled yet, and a presentence investigation will be conducted on Washburn in the meantime.
U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Dillon held off on accepting Washburn’s plea until the sentencing guidelines in the case are laid out. Beers, Washburn’s attorney, said Lynchburg Circuit Court has been holding “considerable funds in trust” awaiting the federal court’s guidelines on any restitution owed.