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Paralegal embezzler pleads guilty, sentencing postponed

GREENFIELD — A former paralegal embezzled nearly $500,000 from a Greenfield lawyer because she was “trying to buy love,” according to her lawyer as he argued for leniency Friday.

Defense attorney Alexander Nappan said that’s why his client, Melissa Wright, 39, of Greenfield, stole $455,232.25 from attorney Mark Berson over four years and spent it all.

Wright pleaded guilty Friday in Franklin Superior Court to charges of check forgery, passing false checks, and larceny over $250.

“She said her social life, before she met (fiance) Greg Brown, was a string of one-night stands. How sad is that?” Nappan said.

“Then, she comes across a guy that likes her for her; not for money, not for liquor or drugs,” he continued. “She would do anything she could to keep him.”

That included spending thousands on toys for Brown’s two children, and giving him money to bail out his contracting business, said Nappan. She explained the money to her fiance by saying it came from a trust fund her mother had left her, Nappan said.

It had actually come from Berson’s business accounts, to which Wright had access. She had worked for Berson for more than half her life, starting at 16 while still in high school.

Prosecutor Steven Gagne argued that Wright was not motivated by love, but by simple greed, and that she used Berson as “her own personal ATM.”

“The majority of this amount went to her own discretionary spending,” said Gagne. “It went to vacations, meals and entertainment.”

Gagne said it nearly brought Berson’s four-decade law practice to its knees.

“She spent my money on partying, drinking, jewelry and destination weddings, and improving the house which she still lives in,” said Berson in court Friday.

He did not seek repayment of the stolen funds. At 70 years old, Berson said, there was no way any restitution Wright could pay would ever make him whole in his lifetime.

Even without restitution, Nappan argued that Wright would be destitute for the remainder of her days. She was assessed about $80,000 in federal and state taxes on approximately $300,000 of the stolen money, and will likely be paying them off for the rest of her life, Nappan said.

Poverty, he argued, should be punishment enough.

In her four years of theft, Wright stole from Berson in a variety of ways, Gagne said.

More than $275,000 was stolen by forging checks and signing them herself or using a rubber stamp of Berson’s signature. She took more than $39,000 by adding hours to her time sheet, wrote more than $20,000 in checks to personal accounts including to cover her credit card bills, and wrote about $10,000 in checks to her fiance, said Gagne.

The missing money first came to light when another employee noticed that Wright had been “padding” her pay, Gagne said.

Berson, addressing the court, said it cost him about $38,000 for a forensic audit of his accounting system after the thefts were discovered.

The audit found that Wright’s actual thefts were more than 10 times previously thought.

The prosecution recommended a three- to five-year state prison sentence, and Nappan argued that she instead be placed on probation for five years.

“I’ve got clients in the Framingham women’s prison,” Nappan said. “(Wright’s) life would be at risk there.”

If the court believes Wright needs to be incarcerated, he said, it should be for a single year, at the county jail.

Sentencing was postponed until Monday morning, after Judge Mary Lou Rup said she would need some time to consider an appropriate punishment.

If Rup decides to sentence Wright to anything more than the three to five years the prosecutors recommended, Wright will have the option to rescind her guilty plea and bring her case to trial.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com, 413-772-0261, ext. 279 or @RecorderRain

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