A former Oklahoma City attorney is accused in a federal indictment of stealing thousands of dollars from children after getting them settlements from lawsuits over car accidents.
John Milton Merritt, 74, is accused of stealing $300,451 from four orphaned girls whose parents were killed in a 2002 car accident. He is accused of stealing $130,000 from a boy injured in a 2005 car crash.
He also is accused of using counterfeit court orders to get access to the children's bank accounts.
He pleaded not guilty Wednesday after the indictment was made public in Oklahoma City federal court.
He told the injured boy's mother last year “that he had done something stupid, that he had used the money to pay bills and that he could go to jail,” according to the indictment. He offered to pay the mother $50,000 and her son $150,000 if she wouldn't report him, according to the indictment.
Merritt filed hundreds of product-liability lawsuits in four decades as an attorney and had been regarded as a hard worker who cared deeply for his clients. He resigned as an attorney last June after coming under investigation.
A federal grand jury indicted him April 17. He is charged with four counts of bank fraud, one count of using the forged signature of a U.S. district judge and seven counts of money laundering.
If convicted, he could be forced to forfeit $731,451 to the United States, pay severe fines and spend years in federal prison.
His attorney, Mack Martin, said, “John Merritt is an internationally renowned lawyer who has for the last 42 years sought and received justice against giant corporations for thousands of ... victims injured by defective products. It is now time for him to have his day in court.”
Merritt has been in poor health and used a cane during his brief appearance at the federal courthouse. As he left Wednesday, a reporter for The Oklahoman asked Merritt how, after helping people his entire career, things got so messed up. Merritt said, “I don't know, but it did.”
Almost all product-liability attorneys who sue automakers and other big companies don't get paid until their lawsuits settle or they win at trials and appeals are done. They have to pay upfront the expenses of pursuing the cases. Some struggle financially, particularly if they lose cases or their cases take a long time to conclude.
The grand jury alleged Merritt began stealing from the orphans' bank accounts in 2005. Their lawsuits were in Cleveland County District Court.
Two girls were left with nothing because of the scheme, according to the indictment.
The grand jury alleged Merritt last year took $130,000 of the $139,030 left in the injured boy's bank account. The boy's lawsuit was in Oklahoma City federal court.
Federal prosecutors said an FBI and Internal Revenue Service investigation of Merritt is ongoing. A Kansas federal judge has been appointed to oversee the criminal case.