Theft, fraud, and violations of trust and trust accounts proliferate in the latest Florida Bar report of attorneys disciplined by the state Supreme Court.
Two attorneys are or will be in federal prison. Another is doing state time.
In alphabetical order:
Police say North Miami attorney Alexander Annunziato (Nova Southeastern School of Law, admitted 2015) tried to buy $20 of heroin from an undercover detective in May 2018. According to his consent agreement, Annunziato went through inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation treatment and continues with therapy, a 12-step program and regular drug testing.
No issues have surfaced since, but he still got a 30-day suspension that ends Monday.
As the Miami Herald described in May after he got hit with an emergency suspension, Chiefland attorney Gregory Beauchamp (University of Florida Law, admitted in 1974) owed money to several estates. The Bar puts the total Beauchamp “misappropriated” from clients at $200,000. Beauchamp, 70, went for disciplinary revocation, essentially, disbarment, to make the Bar side of these matters go away.
One of former Tallahassee mayor and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s oldest friends, Christopher Chestnut (University of Florida, admitted in 2006), has filed an appeal over his permanent disbarment in August.
Chestnut’s appeal claims, among other rights violations, the state Supreme Court disbarred him without giving him proper hearings; that he was denied appellate counsel because his request for an extension while he dealt with a Martin County garnishment on his bank account was denied; and evidence and testimony backing up his affirmative defense of fraud against the Florida Bar was eliminated by the trial judge.
That appeal includes Chestnut’s response to his disbarment in May, which called it a legal lynching: “By lynching one ambitious, accomplishing black attorney as an example to all minority attorneys; that they need to stay in their place and may aim to do well, but not so well as to challenge the market share of “members only” institutional law firms.”
The referee’s report said Chestnut’s fraud defense was rejected because an affirmative defense requires admitting the base facts in the Bar’s complaint and Chestnut “vigorously contested” those facts. The referee also found Chestnut in violation on three of the four matters brought before him by the Bar.
A Jacksonville client who suffered a foot and ankle injury after stepping in a street pothole in 2014 got weak communication and service before Chestnut sent a letter in January 2018 saying “we have chosen not to pursue your claim for injuries.”
Similar complaints came from a client trying to file a wrongful death suit against a nursing home. She said Chestnut’s office even sent her information from other clients’ cases by mistake.
Chestnut’s failure to respond to a court order during discovery caused a client’s case against Delta Airlines to be dismissed with prejudice (after which he sent the client a letter indicating he’d referred her to another attorney).
Pensacola attorney James Corrigan (Florida State College of Law, admitted 1973) has been in Lake Butler since May 30, serving 34 months in prison for racketeering.
The Bar describes Corrigan, 71, doing a sort of one-man Ponzi scheme with his trust account over four years and nine months. Corrigan would delay payments to clients whose money he “misappropriated” until he got money intended for other clients, then use that money to make payments.
Corrigan “intentionally misidentified or did not identify client names on checks disbursed to him in order to conceal the true amount he was taking from each client’s funds,” wrote Roy Jeter, a CPA acting as Florida Bar auditor after viewing Corrigan’s records. Corrigan “often issued numerous checks, sometimes more than 10, to disburse earned contingency fees and costs. I believe this was done to obscure the total amount being disbursed from each client. Misappropriation of funds is evident throughout the four-year, nine-month audit period.”
He has been suspended since June 6 and likely will be disbarred.
According to facts admitted in discipline documents, Miami attorney Orlando Delgado (Creighton School of Law, admitted 1996) quitclaimed his marital home to his ex-wife in his divorce. A Notice of Lis Pendens, a notice of lawsuit against the house’s title, was filed in May 2013. In October 2013, she agreed to a short sale to F.A. Continental, LLC, a company owned by Delgado.
Alas, this was not disclosed to the ex-wife’s lender and the short sale was required to be a transaction with no familial or commercial relationship between buyer and seller. Four years later, in November 2017, F.A. Continental transferred the house to Delgado.
A former F.A. manager started a Bar grievance against Delgado. Delgado responded on Miami time, which doesn’t fly with the Bar.
While the manager’s accusations turned out to be untrue, Delgado still engaged in minor misconduct and failed to respond promptly to the Bar. He admits to not being in good mental health during the relevant time and has undergone treatment.
Still, Delgado is suspended until March 24, 2021.
Coral Gables attorney Joseph Harrison (University of Florida College of Law, admitted 2006) says checks bounced on his trust account in November 2018 because some funds cleared late. Harrison says he’s shown the Bar proof the checks were paid and nobody was hurt. The Bar says no client has filed any Bar action against Harrison.
But the Bar also says once it subpoenaed Harrison’s trust account records, he went for disciplinary revocation. Harrison is out of the lawyer business until at least Aug. 29, 2024.
Before the statute of limitations ran out on a medical malpractice case she’d accepted, Coconut Creek attorney Natalie Hutchinson (Western Michigan Law School, admitted 2013) became as the wind. She withdrew from representation, blocked the client’s email address and didn’t answer phone calls. In her initial response to the Bar complaint, she said the statute of limitations was four years.
Hutchinson’s guilty plea for consent judgment says she was dealing with anxiety, depression and insomnia at the time and has been getting treatment for it for six months. Her 90-day suspension started Saturday.
A check for the trust account of Orlando attorney Daniel Lapina (Barry University School of Law, admitted 2005) bounced. After the Bar did a compliance audit of his trust account records and blamed the account shortage on Lapina’s breaking of Bar rules. Though he has no other history of legal misdeeds, Lapina petitioned for disciplinary revocation, effective Saturday. He can play lawyer again Sept. 21, 2024.
Orlando attorney John Leklem (Ohio Northern College of Law, admitted 1976) has received a public reprimand, will refund $2,500 to the St. Johns River Park Property Owners Association and serve a two-year probation, during which he’ll be monitored by Florida Lawyers Assistance. Leklem failed to communicate properly with the owners’ association while handling a legal matter for them. His trust account records also were found wanting.
Former Tallahassee mayor and city commissioner Scott Maddox (Florida State College of Law, admitted 1995) awaits sentencing after pleading guilty in federal court to wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States. He and his former Chief of Staff Paige Carter-Smith peddled influence through the lobbying company Governance, which Maddox started, then sold to Carter-Smith.
Among those companies to which they sold their favors were Uber and a front for an undercover FBI investigation of Tallahassee criminal activity. In an example of how they operated, a person from the FBI front asked, “So, we can hire you as, like, a consultant? Like you have a business, right?”
Maddox replied, “Not me. I can tell you somebody that you can hire. But not me.” And Maddox recommended Governance.
When asked, “What would I need to put in the coffers a month to start the ball rolling,” Maddox replied, “Twenty.”
“Twenty a month?”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“No, it’s not,” Maddox said.
Maddox has been suspended since Sept. 14. He’ll be sentenced Nov. 19.
Tampa attorney Moein Marashi (Stetson, admitted 2002) seems to have a problem coming across with the cash when he should. Online records say Marashi still owes $363 on a 2018 traffic ticket.
According to a referee’s report, Marashi got a $145,000 check, clients’ settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit in February 2017. That Bank of Tampa commercial checking account closed April 30, 2018 with a zero balance.
None of that money went to the clients or the deceased’s estate.
When 13th Circuit Court Judge Catherine Catlin ordered Marashi to give up $106,039 (the $145,000 minus attorney’s fees) to the Personal Representative in a probate action, Marashi did not. He appeared at an Oct. 30, 2018 show cause hearing, heard Catlin order him to come back at 4 p.m. with a cashier’s check for the $106,039 and no-showed at 4 p.m.
He was arrested on a contempt of court charge in November. The referee said he has paid $20,250 to one estate’s beneficiary. So, he has still officially stolen $84,772.95. That’s why he’s permanently disbarred.
Since his guilty plea for consent judgement after lying to and ignoring three clients, Atlantic Beach attorney Brett Mearkle (Ohio Northern College of Law, admitted 2003) professionally disappeared. He didn’t submit an affidavit with the clients, counsel and tribunals notified of his 90-day suspension. The referee’s report says Mearkle no-showed at two subsequent disciplinary hearings. The Bar also found out about two more cases in which he disappeared on clients.
Mearkle has been disbarred.
When a check to Pratt and Morrison’s trust account bounced, Winter Park attorney Paula Pratt (University of Florida, admitted 1991) testified the check turned rubbery when she paid a client from the trust account instead of the operating account. But her guilty plea says, a Bar audit found Pratt made several transfers from the trust account to the operating account.
In addition to the desegregated funds there were other technical problems with the trust account. Pratt began serving a three-year suspension Sept. 7.
Oveido attorney Michael Presutti (University of Toledo College of Law, admitted 1989) got a public reprimand for including a client in a fight that wasn’t hers.
Presutti represented the personal representative of a dead man’s estate. An acrimonious relationship developed between the personal representative and the man’s widow, who eventually accused her late husband of fraud. Litigation ensued.
Out of this, Presutti — just him, not the personal representative — got ordered to pay the opposing party’s attorney’s fees and costs. He filed an appeal, but included the client in the appeal. She didn’t have a right to appeal. Presutti didn’t get a written waiver of conflict of interest before including her. The appellate court ruled against Presutti and his client.
If you know the whereabouts of Albert Pucylowski (St. Mary’s School of Law, admitted 1998), Florida Bar investigator Shirley Coleman would love to talk to you. Pucylowski’s still as nowhere to be found as he was in December, when Coleman found he’d abandoned his law practice and apartment, leaving behind furniture and active cases.
Coleman searched every which way for Pucylowski, even searching the Legacy website. If he died, there wasn’t an obituary.
So, now he’s dead as a lawyer — disbarred.
Oviedo attorney Natt Reifler (Stetson College of Law, admitted 1995) self-reported his former firm for trust account issues. Though he didn’t have signatory authority, Reifler’s guilty plea admits he didn’t “exercise reasonable diligence to determine the compliance” of the trust accounts. Reifler will go to ethics school and be publicly reprimanded.
Clients of Cocoa Beach attorney Michael Saracco (Barry University, admitted 2012) clients in a case against PNC Bank went for an affirmative defense that the trial court ruled lacked documentation or credible testimony.
“The trial court further found that the defendants’ handwriting expert was well known for being incompetent and unqualified,” Saracco’s guilty plea for consent judgment said.
PNC filed for sanctions and got them, 50 percent against Saracco and 50 percent against the defendants. The trial court judge wrote this was inconsistent with Saracco’s previously shown “integrity and professionalism. The Court can only speculate that Mr. Saracco felt he owed it to his clients to present his clients’ defense in the best light he could.”
Saracco still appealed the sanctions. He also put in his amended initial brief that the trial court hadn’t specifically said the claim was not supported by material facts. When PNC Bank pointed out that was incorrect — “patently false” and “outrageous” — Saracco didn’t correct it in his reply brief.
He is suspended until Oct. 7.
Personal health problems took Davie attorney Bonne Scheflin (Nova University School of Law, admitted 1989) out of Scheflin Law Group office from May through October in 2018. Martha Bernal, a state licensed title agent who had worked with Scheflin for most of the previous seven years, ran the office in Scheflin’s absence.
Or, rather, ran a scam, according to Scheflin’s consent judgment. After Scheflin signed checks for real estate closings from home, Bernal would leave with them then alter the Pay to the Order of name. Bernal controlled the office mail so she could hide her shenanigans.
Upon her return to work, Scheflin found over 300 unanswered voicemails, missing trust account records and copies of canceled checks. A review by a CPA found $415,000 of checks payable to Bernal or MAH Consulting Services, Bernal’s company through which she worked for Scheflin.
For not properly supervising Bernal, Scheflin, who has a clean discipline record, started serving an 18-month suspension on Sept. 14.
Heroin use and driving with a suspended license got Lady Lake attorney William Scheil (University of Tennessee School of Law, admitted 2011) suspended from Jan. 27, 2018 through Jan. 26, 2019. Just before that suspension ended, Scheil got two years’ probation after a heroin possession rap. Scheil didn’t show up for scheduled case management conferences, the sanction hearing and didn’t answer the bar’s discovery requests.
Scheil has been disbarred.
Tampa attorney Jeffrey Thibault (University of Florida, admitted 2011) has ignored Bar inquiries and the Florida Supreme Court’s Order to Show Cause. They don’t like that. Thibault is suspended.
While Hialeah attorney Eric Waraftig (University of Miami School of Law, admitted 1996) hangs out in federal prison until Jan. 23 for wire fraud and conspiracy after trying to rip off QVC, he’s been permanently disbarred.
North Miami Beach attorney Michael Wolowitz (Nova Southeastern, admitted 2012) took $2,500 from a client for a civil case, then didn’t feel like talking to the man or doing his work. Someone else gave Wolowitz $580 to expunge an arrest record. Wolowitz took the money, but didn’t feel like talking to his client or doing the work. He took $2,000 from another client, then didn’t feel like talking to him or doing the work.
And Wolowitz didn’t feel like talking to the Florida Bar about the first client, the second client, the third client or the two checks to FPL on his trust account that bounced.
Once Wolowitz felt like talking again, he admitted his guilt. The Florida Supreme Court spoke, suspending him for a year from Aug. 24 and putting him on probation for the length of his rehabilitation contract with Florida Lawyers Assistance.