Law360 (December 14, 2018, 6:43 PM EST) — An Illinois federal jury sided with a lawyer and his law firm Friday over a man’s claims that the two participated in a scheme to defraud him out of more than $10 million in sham film investments.
The seven-member jury’s verdict was that investor Bill Busbice failed to show by clear and convincing evidence that Illinois lawyer Adrian Vuckovich and his law firm, Collins Bargione & Vuckovich, either participated in or aided and abetted a conspiracy to defraud him of the money, which he claimed was shuffled through the firm’s and lawyer’s bank accounts before it landed in accounts belonging to an alleged co-conspirator. The jury’s decision caps a 10-day trial over Busbice’s claims.
Busbice’s lawsuit claimed he was approached in 2013 by Gerald Seppala, who held himself out as a film industry insider, about an opportunity to invest in the film “Made in America.” He says Seppala then introduced him to David Williams, who Busbice also believed was well connected in the industry and promised to match a $500,000 personal investment in the film if Busbice made a commitment as well.
Busbice says that he relied on those representations in wiring his money, but that Williams never matched the investment and instead transferred $450,000 to another account the day it was received. Williams withdrew more than $112,000 of the transferred money in cashier’s checks from an account he controlled, including more than $87,000 made payable to Steven J. Brown, another alleged co-conspirator, and the Noble Group, whose checks were deposited in the law firm’s retainer account, according to the lawsuit.
From there, and after an additional withdrawal from Williams’ account, Vuckovich wrote a $75,000 check from one of the firm’s accounts to Stuart Manashil, an agent at a prestigious Hollywood talent agency, Busbice alleged.
The scheme continued over about 10 months, with Williams persuading Busbice to invest $2 million to publicize the film “The Letters” in June 2013, $2 million to help publicize the film “Angels Sing” that October and a further $4 million on “The Letters” that November, Busbice claimed.
While details of the purported investment opportunities would change slightly each time Busbice was approached, the basic concept was the same, he claimed. He would wire his money and then receive falsified documents and bank statements indicating that his investment had been matched, but the money would be transferred into other accounts from which thousands of dollars would be deposited in the law firm’s client trust accounts and used to pay the alleged co-conspirators for their work in the ploy, according to the lawsuit.
Busbice claimed he lost about $10.9 million to the alleged scheme.
Vuckovich claimed throughout trial that he never knew Busbice, or what kind of scheme the men had concocted. But knowing Busbice and the scheme “wasn’t his role,” Busbice’s attorney Paul Gale told the jurors during closing argument Friday.
“His role in this conspiracy was to make the money disappear,” he argued. “Who best to help you launder money than a very good longtime friend who happens to be a lawyer in control of a bank account and a trust account?”
The financial accounts used to transfer Busbice’s money were frozen in April 2014 by the bank holding those accounts, and Busbice sued Williams, Seppala, Brown and the companies associated with those accounts in California federal court two months later.
He settled that case in 2015, and the three have since pled guilty along with Manashil to criminal charges over similar sham film investment claims. And while his case in Illinois federal court seeks to hold Vuckovich and his law firm liable for their alleged role in the claimed conspiracy, Vuckovich’s attorney Daniel Konicek told the jurors in his closing argument that Busbice had not come close to meeting the standard to prove his claims with clear and convincing evidence.
“Accidental, negligent participation is not enough, and maybe we can say thank God, right?” Konicek said. “We don’t want to pull innocent people in like Adrian, and the law protects that. Sometimes our clients may be bad people, but we still represent them. And simply by virtue of that, that doesn’t make us bad people.”
U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood cleared the parties’ path to trial in November, when she rejected their dueling bids for summary judgment.
Counsel for Busbice declined comment Friday.
Counsel for Vuckovich and his firm told Law360 in a statement that “the jury reached the right result.”
“Adrian was very grateful to have his day in court,” the statement continued.
By Lauraann Wood
Originally published at on Friday, December 14, 2018 on Law360