A Sydney lawyer has been sentenced to 10 years behind bars for stealing over $6 million from the estates of elderly women, while his wife will serve 500 hours community service for her involvement in the fraudulent plot.
Mark Leo O’Brien, 64, and his wife Therese O’Brien, 63, – who have been labelled the “Bondi Boomers” by the media – spent millions of dollars meant for charity to fund their lavish lifestyle and pay off their children’s mortgages.
The couple faced court on Tuesday at Sydney’s Downing Centre with Judge Robert Sutherland describing the multi-million dollar plot as a “carefully thought out subterfuge” showing “fraudulent and deceptive conduct”.
Mark O’Brien worked as a lawyer, whose firm looked after the estates of many wealthy elderly people in Sydney’s northern beaches. It was in 2015, when a client passed away leaving $1 million to medical organisations and charities that O’Brien began his fraudulent scheme.
Rather than sending the money to the charities it was intended for, Mark O’Brien funnelled the funds into an account to pay off the two mortgages he had on his Bondi home. In what was described by Judge Sutherland as showing “a degree of planning and sophistication” the lawyer then donated small amounts to the charities named in the woman’s will, and when he received letters of confirmation from the charities he used them to forge fake letters for the full amount set out in the will, in case his legal firm was audited.
Judge Sutherland said that Therese O’Brien had been put “in a moral conundrum that ultimately led her to acquiescence”. According to the court documents, Therese O’Brien described being scared about not knowing what to do and what was likely to happen to her husband.
The court documents state that Mark O’Brien told her “it’s done and I can’t put it back”. She described being kept out of involvement in his work and having no control over financial decisions at any time in the marriage. She told the court: “I hate to say it but I was like a housewife.”
The 2015 theft went undiscovered, leading to Mark O’Brien feeling confident enough to try again in 2017 with a wealthy elderly client he had power of attorney over.
“With self-confidence buoyed by the earlier misappropriation not being discovered and the forged letters undetected despite an audit, O’Brien decided to try his hand at fraudulent misappropriation again,” said Judge Sutherland in court.
With an estate worth $6 million, the woman left large amounts of her wealth to charities, including about $3 million to St Vincent de Paul Society. Mark O’Brien instead put the funds toward the purchase and renovations of a $3.4 million home in Bondi Junction. Theresa O’Brien also spent $50,000 to buy furniture and decorate the couple’s new home.
The couple’s downfall came in 2019 when they traded up from a home worth over $1 million in North Bondi, to a four-bedroom, four-bathroom Bondi home worth over $3 million. The sudden upgrade ultimately led to his business partner from the firm Harrington, Maguire and O’Brien becoming suspicious of how he could afford the home and bringing about a detailed audit of the firm.
In total, the O’Briens extracted $6.1 million from the estates of the deceased victims to fund their property portfolio and top up their self-managed superannuation fund. Some of the money also went on interest-free loans to their children of several hundred thousand dollars each. There is no suggestion the children knew where that money had originated.
In an unusual twist, the judge noted that the couple has since paid back all the money they stole. The judge said the couple had invested the ill-gotten gains and through selling their property (which had increased in value), emptying their super fund and by their children repaying the loans, the charities ultimately received the cash they had been promised years ago.
Judge Sutherland said while he accepted the couple’s “deep remorse and contrition” the motivation for misappropriating the funds “was one of greed rather than need” and it did not absolve them from “criminal complicity”.
Therese was sentenced to three years imprisonment but will serve that as an intensive correction order including 500 hours community service, meaning she will not spend time behind bars. Mark O’Brien was convicted on 10 charges including dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception and knowingly dealing with the proceeds of crime. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Mark O’Brien will be eligible for parole in March, 2027.
Note: Readers should not confuse this Mark O’Brien with defamation lawyer Mark O’Brien of Mark O’Brien Legal.
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