Word of Chris Pettit suicide attempt takes courtroom by surprise; Judge denies his ask for $10K monthly – San Antonio Express-News

A lawyer angered a San Antonio bankruptcy judge by disclosing in open court that ex-attorney Christopher “Chris” Pettit — accused of plundering millions of dollars belonging to his clients — had tried to commit suicide.

At a hearing to determine whether Pettit should be allowed to have more than $10,000 a month for living expenses, attorney Tom Keyser revealed that his client attempted to hang himself in February.

Keyser divulged the sensitive information to support Pettit’s request for $850 in mental health services as part of a monthly budget.

Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Craig Gargotta turned him down in ruling Pettit wasn’t authorized to spend any money. He had wildly spent more than $260,000 — including on trips to Disney World and Kennedy Space Center — after his June 1 bankruptcy filing.

But Thursday’s denial of living expenses was overshadowed by a flash of anger from the usually mild-mannered Gargotta, who admonished Keyser for announcing in court information that should have remained confidential.

“Mr. Keyser, I don’t know what in God’s name you were doing,” the judge said at the end of the all-day hearing. “I’ve been on the bench almost 15 years and I’ve never dressed down a lawyer.”

Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Craig Gargotta admonished a lawyer for Chris Pettit for disclosing in open court that Pettit had tried to hang himself in February. The lawyer should have revealed that in the judge’s chambers, Gargotta said.

Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Craig Gargotta admonished a lawyer for Chris Pettit for disclosing in open court that Pettit had tried to hang himself in February. The lawyer should have revealed that in the judge’s chambers, Gargotta said.

Jessica Phelps / Jessica Phelps

Keyser earlier had told the judge that Pettit had reached out to him through the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program after his suicide attempt. The program helps lawyers who have “substance use and other mental health issues” and treats such assistance as “strictly confidential,” its website says.

Keyser has credited the program for saving his life and career that were in tatters as a result of a drug addiction more than 30 years ago.

After Pettit, 55, was discharged from a Florida psychiatric hospital, Keyser said he referred him to a San Antonio psychiatrist and a counselor.

“I don’t want Chris Pettit hurting himself,” Keyser told the judge in attempting to “validate” the $850 Pettit wanted for mental health services. “I want him to be able to walk through this.”

Saying Keyser was opening himself up to cross-examination by lawyers for creditors opposed to Pettit getting any money, Gargotta directed Keyser to “just be quiet and sit down.”

Keyser could have revealed Pettit’s suicide attempt in the privacy of the judge’s chambers rather than in court, Gargotta said.

“You have put me in a very difficult situation,” Gargotta added. “I, of course, do not want any harm to come to Mr. Pettit.” But Pettit’s legal team put on “zero evidence” to support the $850 expense, let alone the rest of the expenses outlined in his proposed budget.

Expenses ‘not reasonable’

That came after the revelation this week that San Antonio police are treating the death of Pettit’s younger brother, Charles, as a suicide. Charles Pettit, 49, had worked as a non-lawyer at Chris Pettit & Associates up until it closed in May amid mounting allegations from clients that their money had been stolen.

A police incident report shows Pettit had asked for a welfare check on his brother July 12 after not hearing from him in nearly a month. Police discovered Charles Pettit’s body at the house where he lived on Deer Crest.

Petitt had indicated to police that his legal issues may have caused his brother to harm himself.

With lawsuits piling up against him and his firm, Chris Pettit in June surrendered his law license and filed for bankruptcy protection, reporting about $40.5 million in assets and $112.2 million in debts.

The exchange between Gargotta and Keyser capped a puzzling day for Pettit’s legal team, which offered only his testimony to support his request for $10,310 a month to cover living expenses.

No bills or receipts were presented as evidence, as is normal in such cases, leading Gargotta to deny the motion to grant him a “limited” budget.

Pettit’s monthly budget request included $3,000 for child care; $2,000 for his 10-year-old son’s tuition at Saint Mary’s Hall, a private school; $400 for cable and internet; $450 for a cellphone; and $400 for prescriptions and co-pays for healthcare services. He and his son live in a 5,000-square-foot home in a gated community in Stone Oak. Pettit valued it at $1.8 million.

“These expenses are not reasonable in any stretch of the imagination,” the judge said. He also wasn’t convinced that Pettit is doing his best to reduce his spending and find a job. Gargotta sided with the Chapter 11 trustee and lawyers for several creditors, who opposed the request.

Pettit ‘evasive’

“Many of the people sitting in this gallery today, your honor, don’t have the means to meet their daily obligations because Mr. Pettit stole their money,” attorney Leslie Luttrell said, referring to the roughly dozen creditors who attended the hearing. “The court needs to keep that in mind as it is analyzing whether or not he should be afforded a dime.”

Former San Antonio attorney Christopher Pettit, right, walks with his attorney Michael G. Colvard into the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building to meet with creditors, Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Pettit is facing allegations that he stole tens of millions of dollars from his clients.

Former San Antonio attorney Christopher Pettit, right, walks with his attorney Michael G. Colvard into the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building to meet with creditors, Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Pettit is facing allegations that he stole tens of millions of dollars from his clients.

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

Pettit had tapped a significant amount of money from his retirement accounts to fund his post-bankruptcy lifestyle. His bankruptcy lawyer has argued the accounts were funded with legitimate earnings, so creditors can’t claim them as assets of the bankruptcy estate for distribution to them. No determination on whether the retirement money is exempt from the bankruptcy estate has been made, however.

Luttrell countered that her clients contend all of the retirement money that Pettit wants to use to support himself is “tainted by fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.” It’s Pettit burden to show the money is not tainted, she said.

He couldn’t explain numerous money transfers that Luttrell asked him about — including $125,000 moved from a trust account meant to hold client money to his personal checking account on April 18.

Gargotta found Pettit’s testimony “evasive” and not “all that credible,” noting how he repeatedly answered, “I don’t know” or “don’t recall” when questioned by the creditors’ lawyers.

“The situation Mr. Petitt’s in is of his own creation,” the judge said. “So he’s going to have dig himself out.”

Get a job

The judge gave Pettit’s side the opportunity to refile a budget request, but he’s going to have get a job.

Pettit had a job offer in Orlando but that was yanked from him after the employer found out about his legal troubles. Pettit testified he has filled out job applications at more than 100 businesses, including at Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld.

In the meantime, Pettit isn’t even permitted to use airline points he’s earned to book flights. Since a couple weeks before the bankruptcy, Pettit has been traveling between San Antonio and Orlando, where he had been living in a more than $6 million mansion at Disney World. The points are considered an asset of the bankruptcy estate.

Pettit has said the mansion is owned for the benefit of his son’s trust. A lawyer for the trust told Gargotta they are working toward a sale of the mansion and a New Orleans apartment building that the trust also owns.

The trust was created for the health, education and support of Pettit’s son, but it no longer has a bank account or cash assets. They were used to buy real estate and Pettit, who is trustee for the trust, acknowledges he probably owes it money.

“As a Texas lawyer and as a trustee of the trust, you know that that trust prohibits self-dealing, right?” asked Martin Seidler, a lawyer for creditors.

“Yes,” Pettit answered.

Also Thursday, Pettit testified he has waived discharging any of his debts in the bankruptcy case. That means he’s on the hook to repay creditors.

pdanner@express-news.net

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