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Criminal defense attorney convicted by jury for theft-by-swindle

On Oct. 25, criminal defense attorney, Kristi McNeilly, was convicted of theft-by-swindle for taking $15,000 from one of her clients in November 2018, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced Tuesday.

After a week-long trial, a Hennepin County jury found McNeilly, 46, of Woodbury, guilty after deliberating for less than an hour. McNeilly is scheduled for sentencing on Dec. 27, at 8:45 a.m. As per Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, she is expected to receive probation and some workhouse time.

“Kristi McNeilly breached the trust of her client, and violated her ethical obligations as a licensed attorney to practice law in Minnesota,” Freeman stated.

“Her lack of integrity is alarming and, more importantly, criminal. The jury’s decision to convict her is entirely just.” According to the criminal complaint, in May 2018, McNeilly was asked to represent a 53-year-old victim and his 39-year-old roommate for $22,500 after the Southwest Hennepin Drug Taskforce executed a search warrant of the victim’s residence and found a small amount of drugs in a safe.

In the coming weeks, the victim sent checks and made direct deposits to McNeilly’s checking account totaling $22,500—costs needed to retain McNeilly for both himself and his roommate, the complaint states. McNeilly worked on the roommate’s petty misdemeanor marijuana case and represented him at one court appearance on Oct. 29, 2018.  Several months after the search warrant, the victim still had not been charged.

On Nov. 5, 2018, McNeilly contacted the victim and told him she was asked to meet with the lead investigator and the prosecuting attorney on his drug case. After the supposed meeting, McNeilly went to the victim’s home and told him the authorities were building a large case against him and that he was facing 15 to 20 years in federal prison for his drug case, the complaint continues.

McNeilly told the victim that the lead investigator informed her that he could avoid charges if he paid $35,000 to a police union fund and worked as a confidential informant. As an alternative, she told him if he did not want to work as informant, he could pay $50,000 to the police union to make his charges disappear.

While McNeilly conversed with the victim, she also showed him a form he would need to sign if he chose to become a confidential informant. McNeilly drove the victim to the bank where he proceeded to pay her a $15,000 cashier’s check as a partial payment on the $50,000, the complaint continues.

The victim later contacted another criminal defense attorney who told him that he had likely been swindled and that he should report the matter to authorities. The issue was then reported to the Minnetonka Police Department who immediately sent it to the Burnsville Police Department for investigation due to a potential conflict of interest.

On Nov. 8, the victim asked McNeilly for his $15,000 back and told her that he could no longer go through with the plan discussed at his house. She refused, saying the money had already been “paid as directed.” However, a search of her bank records found no money paid to the union. The $15,000 was spent on McNeilly’s mortgage payment, payments to credit cards and other personal spending, the complaint states.

The investigation further revealed that McNeilly lied to her client in order to extort $15,000 from him. She never spoke with a lead investigator, nor with the prosecuting attorney on Nov. 5, 2018, the complaint says. Additionally, there was no proposal to pay money to a police union, and, federal prosecutors were never involved.

A search warrant for McNeilly’s home and computer was obtained and executed where investigators found documentation of the swindle, including a fraudulent confidential informant form that named the lead investigator’s agency.

The victim was eventually charged with a low-level fifth-degree controlled substance crime as a result of the search warrant, which under Minnesota law would have resulted in a probationary sentence for the victim. He was later offered and entered the drug diversion program.

During trial, the victim testified that he paid the money since he was afraid of losing his job and going to prison. He further testified that he believed what McNeilly told him since she was his lawyer and he trusted her.

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