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Corporate lawyer Douglas Arntsen admits stealing $10 million from clients

NEW YORK -- A Manhattan corporate lawyer pleaded guilty on Tuesday to stealing more than $10 million in clients' money, which prosecutors said he spent on pricey restaurants, strip clubs and buying businesses.

The plea ends a year-long legal saga that began last September when Douglas Arntsen flew to Hong Kong -- a day after the Manhattan district attorney's office notified his law firm, Crowell & Moring, that he was the subject of a criminal probe.

Prosecutors later accused Arntsen, 34, of embezzling millions in escrow funds starting in 2009, when he allegedly began siphoning money into bank accounts he controlled.

Arntsen has been held without bail since federal authorities returned him to the United States in January to face the charges.

Prosecutors accused him of fleeing to avoid arrest. His lawyer, Alan Lewis, has said Arntsen was taking a planned trip.

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On Tuesday, Arntsen pleaded guilty in a Manhattan courtroom to several counts of grand larceny and scheme to defraud.

"He's always indicated his intention to accept responsibility, and he did today," Lewis said after the court appearance.

He will be sentenced in October and faces 4 to 12 years in prison, although The Wall Street Journal last week reported prosecutors' concerns that Arntsen wants to go to a prison boot camp called Shock Incarceration where inmates can be released after six months.

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In a statement, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said that the "trust between attorney and client is sacred.”

“This defendant utterly betrayed that trust by stealing large amounts of money from his clients before fleeing to Hong Kong. Today’s conviction holds him accountable for fraudulent conduct that violated the law, abused his clients’ trust, and cost them millions of dollars,” he added.

The statement said Arntsen “began using the funds to support a lavish lifestyle that included visits to expensive restaurants, sporting events, and strip clubs. Arntsen also used the money to purchase businesses for himself, friends, and family members.”

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Prosecutors launched an investigation last fall after one of Arntsen's clients, Regal Real Estate, was unable to account for the money in its escrow accounts.

Regal's managing partner, William Punch, told Reuters that when he confronted Arntsen about $4 million in missing funds on Sept. 12, 2011, the lawyer broke down and admitted he had used some of the money. Arntsen resigned from his firm that day.

Two days later, he boarded a plane to Hong Kong.

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Arntsen's former firm has settled three civil lawsuits brought in connection with Arntsen's fraud, all by real estate companies -- including Regal -- that claimed the lawyer stole funds from their accounts.

"We regret the harm caused by Douglas Arntsen to our clients and our firm and are pleased Mr. Arntsen has acknowledged his crimes with a guilty plea," said Crowell managing partner Ellen Dwyer in a statement.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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