Former Irmo attorney pleads guilty to over $1.5 million in COVID relief funds

A former Irmo attorney has been sentenced to federal prison after pleading guilty to stealing more than $1 million in COVID relief funds.

Ray Allen Lord was sentenced to 18 months in prison, ordered to forfeit $1.6 million and pay a $100,000 fine, First Assistant US Attorney Brook Andrews told The State on Tuesday.

The 56-year-old Lord gave false information about PPP loans and took $1,591,700 in Small Business Administration funds from the government, court filings show.

“He is extremely remorseful for his actions and has issued a full refund of $1,391,685.70,” attorney Alexandra Benevento of Colombia law firm Strom said in a memorandum to the court before the sentencing.

On Oct. 17, 2022, Lord — a former volunteer coroner and former member of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department — pled guilty to one charge of wire fraud, according to court records. He was never formally charged and instead agreed to plead guilty to the charges after being contacted by federal agents before they came before a grand jury, according to court records.

According to the March 10 memorandum, the nearly $1.4 million satisfied his return obligation.

Lord was able to repay the money so quickly because he had saved rather than spent it, the memorandum said.

Lord was accused of making loan applications for his law firm, as well as for Palmetto Safety Supply and two charities registered in his name, Gracepointe Christian Church and New Life Ministries of Irmo.

He also submitted three loan applications for a property management business at 216 Racket Road in Chapin and for two agricultural businesses at 126 and 133 Middlefield Roads in Little Mountain.

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All of these filings contained “fraudulent and misrepresentations and submissions,” according to the indictment document.

Since graduating from Mercer Law School in 1998 and being sworn into law in South Carolina the following year, Lord had maintained a thriving law practice that included probate, bankruptcy and divorce cases, according to a court filing.

The story goes on

According to a document attached to his sentencing note, “he was never short of work until COVID struck.”

Along the way, he maintained close ties with law enforcement and volunteered as an assistant medical examiner in both Richland and Newberry counties. In letters to the court, former Richland County coroner Gary Watts described Lord as a “first-rate person,” while Newberry County coroner Laura G. Kneece wrote that Lord was “an exemplary officer with an admirable sense of duty.”

“That poor choice was dramatically out of character for my straight husband,” his wife, Ashley Lord, wrote in a letter to the court.

Lord’s connections to law enforcement stem from his service with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, where he was a patrolman. He graduated top of his class from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy.

But his time in law enforcement also contributed to the many mental health issues, including PTSD, which would plague him for much of his life, according to documents filed by Benevento, his attorney. This led to the onset of his drinking problems around 1989, and he later used alcohol to self-medicate for a variety of chronic pains.

Before COVID, he struggled with suicidal thoughts for a number of years. Although Lord was often a high achiever and a respected and engaged member of the community, for much of his life he struggled with communicating with other people and suffered from heightened sensory issues. Following his indictment, Lord also received an autism spectrum diagnosis.

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The diagnosis “illuminates many of his earlier struggles,” his wife wrote to the court.

Alongside health issues ranging from chronic tinnitus to gout, Lord underwent multiple eye surgeries to restore his vision after being declared legally blind in 2017.

Encouraging the court to consider a reduced sentence, Benevento also argued that Lord is now the primary caregiver to his three children (he has three other children from a previous relationship), including a 3-year-old daughter who has just been diagnosed type 1 diabetes

“Ray is a warm and caring person. He is a family man from head to toe,” wrote family friends Eric and Katie Manning. Her letter was only one of ten letters presented to the court confirming Lord’s good character.

Among them, a friend, Doug Ames, wrote that Lord sold him his house below market value when Ames’ family needed a place to live.

In 2022, Lord resigned from the South Carolina bar rather than face further disciplinary action, according to the memorandum.