Bankruptcy judge rejects Chris Pettit’s bid to get out of jail


SAN ANTONIO — Christopher “Chris” Pettit will remain in jail after a bankruptcy court judge ruled Wednesday that the disgraced former attorney did not do enough to clear himself of a contempt of court charge.

Telling Pettit he holds the keys to his jail cell, U.S. Chief Bankruptcy Judge Craig Gargotta set 17 conditions the ex-lawyer must meet in order to be released. First on the list is for Pettit to hand over a work laptop to the trustee who is administering the bankruptcy estate. Pettit gave conflicting accounts regarding his whereabouts.

“It would really move things forward if Mr. Pettit made it clear what happened with the laptop, good or bad, so we could move on in that case,” Gargotta said. The laptop allegedly contains information the trustee wants regarding Pettit’s clients and their funds.

“I’m not suggesting he says that, but if Mr. Pettit said, ‘I destroyed it’…then if it really was the truth, then we would know…that as a result (the trustee and creditors don’t are) not going to get that information,” the judge added. “Really, what’s at issue here is just saying where it is.”


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The judge was not convinced that Pettit, who appeared in court via video, was clear about the location of the laptop.

The trustee’s attorney previously reported that Pettit failed to disclose his ownership of two Mercedes-Benz automobiles. On Wednesday, it was revealed he had also failed to declare ownership of a mobile home which was used by the family of a woman caring for Pettit’s underage son.

Pettit, 55, filed for bankruptcy protection for himself and his law firm on June 1 after allegations surfaced that he got away with money belonging to his clients . He gave up his law license in lieu of disciplinary action and closed his law firm. The FBI investigated the allegations.

About $260 million in claims have been submitted by creditors in the bankruptcy cases, making it one of the largest ever filed in San Antonio.


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Pettit specialized in estate planning and personal injury cases, but also provided financial advice and investment management services.

In a Nov. 3 court filing, he provided handwritten responses to the terms set out by Gargotta in his Sept. 8 contempt order. Pettit wrote that he did not own the laptop.

During Wednesday’s hearing, San Antonio attorney Ron Smeberg told the court that he would be representing Pettit in his personal bankruptcy case. Pettit’s former attorney withdrew from the case after learning he was paid with money allegedly stolen from Pettit’s clients.

Smeberg pleaded for his client’s release from prison, telling the judge that keeping Pettit incarcerated for the laptop and another issue would amount to criminal contempt. The purpose of a civil contempt order is to compel someone to comply with a court order, while a criminal contempt is a punishment for disobeying a court order.

“If Mr. Pettit is telling the truth, it will be impossible for me to prove he doesn’t have that laptop, because you can’t prove a negative result,” Smeberg said. It means that even if other issues are resolved, he added, Pettit “will be in jail forever because he can’t prove to the court or anyone here that he doesn’t have it.”


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Attorneys for the trustee opposed Pettit’s release.

“He continues not to tell the truth,” attorney Patrick Huffstickler told the judge. Smeberg “says he can’t prove a negative result. He could actually ask Mr. Pettit to tell the truth: “I have the laptop or I threw it in the ocean, whatever.” But telling the court and the creditors that he gave it to us, which clearly isn’t true…shows that he still hasn’t purged his contempt and frankly he still has contempt for the court.

Smeberg then questioned Pettit about the laptop.

“I will help you and the trustee in any way I can find that laptop,” Pettit swore. “I’m certainly not trying to hide it. I didn’t ask anyone to hide it. He added that it should still be in his old law firm.

The hearing continued into the afternoon with attorney Michael Colvard’s request for payment of fees and expenses for previously representing Pettit and his company in filing bankruptcy cases. The claim was contested by the trustee and some creditors.

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