A disbarred Tri-City lawyer could go to jail after admitting he pocketed clients’ money instead of paying their owed back taxes or returning refunds.
Christopher Lee Neal, 45, lost his law license for good this past February following a lengthy investigation by the Washington State Bar Association.
Last week, he pleaded guilty in Benton County Superior Court to two counts of first-degree theft, which include the aggravating circumstance of being a major economic offense.
Neal was in a wheelchair for the brief hearing.
Defense attorney Scott Johnson said his client has “obvious health issues” as he asked for sentencing to be pushed back.
The standard range for a first-time offender convicted of theft is two to six months in county jail.
Neal was became a lawyer in January 2003, and focused on tax law and “IRS controversy.” His office was on West Grandridge Boulevard.
In April 2014, a couple paid him $2,000 as a retainer to help with seven years of back taxes they owed to the IRS.
The following year, they gave Neal a $65,000 cashier’s check to cover three years worth of taxes.
The couple expected Neal to get the money to the IRS, according to court and state bar records.
Neal put the cashier’s check in his business bank account, but just three months later signed a stipulation to a one-year suspension of his law license. That took effect in March 2016.
However, Neal kept working for the couple.
He received a $27,815 cashier’s check for their 2015 taxes, and then had the couple pay him $170,000 into his business account with the understanding it would go to the IRS.
Neal closed that bank account in June 2016, then moved $153,703 to another account.
The IRS later confirmed for investigators that no payments were ever made on the couple’s behalf, records show.
The second theft charge is for keeping almost $66,000 in tax refunds meant for a client.
Court records show that Neal handled a Kennewick businessman’s personal and corporate taxes for 2013 and 2014.
Neal wrote his own business address in place of the client’s home address and used his business bank account to get direct deposits from the IRS, according to court documents.
The client was supposed to get a $3,784 refund for one year, and $61,924 in overpayment for another year, documents said.
But Neal never gave him the IRS payouts.
Once the criminal allegations came to light and Neal was suspended by the state bar, he moved from his Kennewick home to his mother’s home in Selah, records show.
The state Supreme Court made the ultimate decision to disbar him early this year, based on the criminal case and complaints from other clients.