‘Mental illness,drink, drugs’

2017-09-26 13:45
Claudia Garella is opposing an application by the KZN Law Society to strike her off the roll of attorneys.

Claudia Garella is opposing an application by the KZN Law Society to strike her off the roll of attorneys. (File)

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Suspended Pietermaritzburg attorney Claudia Garella has admitted misappropriating a client’s trust money but says her actions stemmed from a bipolar disorder accompanied by severe depression, cocaine and alcohol abuse.

The glamourous attorney, who operated Garella Attorneys from July 2010, was temporarily suspended from practising in March this year.

This followed allegations that she stole R750 000 entrusted to her by Guerrino Piovesan, and had falsified bank records.

The KZN Law Society is seeking to strike her off the roll of attorneys and the case is set down for hearing in the Pietermaritzburg high court on October 20.

Garella missed the initial deadline to oppose the strike-off application but was subsequently given more time.

She said in her opposing affidavit that when the court papers were served on her she was undergoing treatment at Riverview Manor specialist clinic and was unable to think clearly.

She has been diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder.

Garella admits now that she took Piovesan’s money and did not invest it with Hepburn Incorporated, as he had instructed.

“I instead used the funds for the practice. The reason I did this was that at that time my mental state was such that I irrationally thought that the only way that was going to save my life, be able to look after my son and to repay the loan [from her parents] was by establishing a big, visible, high-end practice in the centre of Pietermaritzburg and to do so in a blaze of publicity and advertising.

“This I reasoned would enable me to be famous as a high-profile attorney, to hire other attorneys, to open up various companies, to lead the firm and to make a lot of money ...

“I used the R750 000 to fund my elaborate plan,” she said.

She signed a lease for office space for R40 000 per month, hired attorneys and bought expensive furniture to the tune of R200 000 to “kit out the new offices”.

She also spent R50 000 on computers and cabling, leased a new printer worth R200 000 and had artwork and qualification certificates framed for display in the offices.

She also moved her website to a new company with instructions to “make her famous”.

Garella says she believed the “high-end new practice” would quickly generate enough money for her to replace the misappropriated funds.

“Now I see things in perspective, I did not have enough rational thought or insight to appreciate it then. My plan was entirely irrational, unrealistic and unachievable.

“I did not have the capital to fund it, I did not have clients to generate the income to pay for it, I did not have the work to justify the floor space I hired, I did not need the attorneys I hired to do the work I did not have, I did not have a business plan.

“The enterprise was a fantasy born of what I can only see now was my own irrational and disordered thinking.”

Garella said she could not focus on work, her head was “incredibly busy, noisy” and her thoughts were constantly racing and her mind spinning.

In order to get work done she’d hired an attorney because she [Garella] was not in a position to do the work and the “majority of time was still in bed”.

Piovesan got an initial court order instructing her to repay his money on December 1 last year. Garella said the next day she’d held an “elaborate, professionally catered opening cocktail party” at her new offices.

“Even though the event was to mark my success and future I was unable to fulfill what was expected of me, I arrived late,” she said.

“In January 2017 I simply could no longer cope and packed my car ... and left Pietermaritzburg,” she said.

The money owed to Piovesan has been repaid by her parents.

Garella says she has closed her practice but is pleading not to be struck off the roll. Instead she wants the court to grant an order interdicting her from practising as an attorney on her own account, giving her leave to work as a professional assistant to attorneys and ordering her to undergo regular prescribed psychotherapy and “psychiatric management”.

Garella says she has been told her mental illness may be temporary with appropriate care. She reveals in her affidavit that she started using cocaine to “push” herself in 2015. After colleagues came to know about it she was embarrassed. Her subsequent efforts to “publicly show a semblance of normality” took their toll on her wellbeing. “In June/July 2015 I started drinking red wine heavily in an attempt to cope with my life and keep running my practice tomake the money I needed to pay salaries and other practice expenses,” she said.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  garella trial

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