A Santa Maria Valley attorney faces 13 felony criminal charges in Santa Barbara County Superior Court related to allegations that she embezzled funds and committed other white-collar crimes while handling an elderly client’s trust.
Debbie Lee Morawski, 47, of Orcutt has been charged with three counts of embezzlement, one count of theft from an elder or dependent adult, one count of preparing false documentary evidence and eight counts of money laundering.
The criminal complaint also lists several special allegations, or sentencing enhancements, including for aggravated white-collar crime with a loss greater than $500,000.
The alleged crimes occurred while Morawski handled the Delta Campbell Family Trust beginning in 2016 and continued after Delta Campbell died in September 2017 at age 92.
Court documents filed on behalf of Delta Campbell’s daughters in a civil case filed by attorney Dennis James Balsamo detailed the allegations that led Judge James Rigali to sign a judgment decree of $1.4 million against Morawski.
The civil case alleged that Morawski spent the money in various ways, including a vacation to Cancun, Mexico, a trip to Yosemite National Park, private school tuition, concert tickets, false eyelashes, a spray tan, a $500 sushi dinner and “a plethora of Amazon purchases.”
They also contend that she used some of their mother’s life savings to pay a fine to the California State Bar for an unrelated disciplinary matter.
“Respondent used the trust bank accounts as her own personal piggy bank and as an insurance fund for her often overdrawn bank accounts. Her bank statements reveal patterns of frivolous spending and behavior,” according to one declaration filed in the civil case.
During her first court appearance on June 28 for the criminal case while represented by the Public Defender’s Office, Morawski pleaded not guilty and denied the special allegations.
On Friday, Deputy District Attorney Casey Nelson succeeded in getting a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order in the criminal case against Morawski.
Documents to support the request cite her partial ownership of a residence on Townsend Lane and her husband’s newly opened restaurant, The Salty Brigade Kitchen, through Natriums Hospitality LLC. Michael McDonald is identified as the manager, but Morawski is not listed.
The Salty Brigade, on Skyway Drive in Santa Maria, opened in late June, a day before Morawski appeared in court for the criminal case, according to the restaurant’s Facebook page.
The order bans Morawski from transferring ownership of property she co-owns and not to encumber or transfer any interest in Natriums Hospitality LLC.
Prosecutors also are seeking information about bank accounts belonging to Morawski, Michael McDonald and Natriums Hospitality.
Morawski was ordered back to court in the criminal case Aug. 23.
The allegations against Morawski are likely to lead to another action by the California State Bar, which previously had placed her on probation and stayed a suspension after noting eight acts of wrongdoing. That case stemmed from Morawski being hired to represent a man going through a divorce in Los Angeles County. However, Morawski failed to return paperwork to opposing counsel and later did not respond to her client’s request for information, according to a stipulation as to facts and agreement in lieu of discipline document.
Additionally, she did not provide an appropriate accounting of the $3,500 in advanced fees the client paid Morawski.
Furthermore, she failed to respond to the State Bar’s letter seeking information about the marriage dissolution case.
A second case involved her failure to appear while serving as the attorney for the executor in a Riverside County case.
In choosing punishment, the California State Bar noted Morawski’s role serving in the family law court representing indigent parties in juvenile dependency cases for a nominal fee along with pro bono work in domestic violence, child welfare and juvenile delinquency cases.
She also was ordered to pay more than $9,100 in costs related to the California State Bar investigation.
Last year, Morawski’s law office reportedly received $36,500 under the federal Paycheck Protection Program related to COVID-19, claiming it would protect five jobs, according to a ProPublica database.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.