Tampa condo owner Alejandro Salazar was surprised to learn that Clearwater lawyer Bruce Harlan was representing him in a foreclosure case.
Surprised because Salazar never met Harlan, didn't hire him and didn't even want the condo. But someone else did — Lori Polin, a real estate agent with a checkered past who paid Harlan $1,500 to delay the foreclosure because she hoped to buy Salazar's condo in a short sale.
Because of Harlan's actions in the case, the Florida Supreme Court this month suspended him from practicing law for 90 days starting in mid December.
"Even if Mr. Harlan had good intentions, his clients, Mr. Salazar and Ms. Polin, had adverse interests and Mr. Harlan was representing both of them at the same time,'' the Florida Bar said in finding Harlan guilty of a conflict of interest.
The bizarre chain of events started in 2007 when Salazar's architectural design business foundered and he and his wife moved to her native Spain, defaulting on their mortgage and condo maintenance fees. The Westchase Community Association took title to the condo and deeded the unit to Polin after she paid the back fees.
At the time, Polin was about to go into foreclosure on her own Westchase condo. She moved into the Salazars' unit and rented out hers, collecting more than $14,000 in rent, but not making payments on either property. Instead, Polin hired Harlan to delay the foreclosure on the Salazars' condo while she negotiated with the bank to buy it for far less than the $137,000 the couple then owed.
When Salazar returned to Tampa for a visit in 2009, he called the bank to see why its foreclosure suit had dragged on for so long with steadily mounting fees.
"Because,'' the bank told him, "your attorney has been fighting us for a year.''
Salazar pieced together what happened and complained to the Bar.
Harlan said Monday that he took the case because he thought he was helping both sides. "It seemed like a good deal all the way around,'' he said, because a short sale would have enabled Polin to buy the condo at a reduced price while sparing the Salazars from having a foreclosure on their credit history.
"The Bar treated me very fairly,'' Harlan said of his three-month suspension. A Florida lawyer since 1972, he was put on a year's probation in 2007 for violating Bar rules in another case by failing to keep clients' funds separate from his own.
Salazar could not be reached for comment. Last spring, Deutsche Bank got a final judgment of foreclosure against him that had swelled to nearly $190,000 with interest and legal fees.
Polin, a former top-producing agent for Re/Max, became a controversial figure in Tampa Bay real estate circles in 2007 as the market began to sour. As the St. Petersburg Times reported, an anonymous letter sent to Re/Max's Denver headquarters alleged that she "artificially inflated" the prices of several homes in Tampa and North Pinellas so the buyers could get larger loans.
Most of the houses were mortgaged for more than the actual sales price, with the buyer or a third party skimming off thousands of dollars in loan proceeds.
In 2008, Polin's name surfaced in a civil suit filed by Florida's attorney general against 25 companies and individuals accused of pocketing more than $6 million by fraudulently obtaining mortgages on at least 60 houses, most of which later went into foreclosure.
The lawsuit, said at the time to be the biggest mortgage fraud case ever filed in the United States, remains open.
Polin was not named as a defendant because real estate agents are exempt from the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, under which the others were sued. However, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation says it has an "active'' case involving Polin.
Polin, who changed her name to Lori Weber, is now an agent in New York City with Rutenberg Realty. Reached by phone Monday, Polin said, "I have no comment for you'' and hung up.
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.