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Lawyer John Trevena says 'American way' of spending led him to foreclosure, IRS lien

LARGO — John Trevena had all the trappings of a high-powered attorney: two Porsches, a 43-foot boat, a waterside home.

Now the man who appears on local and national TV with the stories of high-profile clients has bad credit and lives in an apartment.

JPMorgan Chase started foreclosure proceedings against him this month.

He surrendered the $540,000 boat in December after the IRS came looking for back taxes.

And he no longer has the two Porsches.

The public John Trevena who drove up to news conferences in luxury convertibles seemed flush with cash. The private one is awash in debt he accumulated when he took advantage of a series of low-rate home refinancing options at the height of the housing bubble.

He said he used the income from those offers and the increasing equity in his home to finance the expansion of his law practice and his lifestyle.

Trevena acknowledges that he lived beyond his means. Asked why he did that, he said: "You're kidding, right? It's the American way."

• • •

Court records indicate Trevena's fall was slow and began a decade ago.

In February 2000, John and Susan Trevena bought a home in Largo's Harbor Bluffs section for $408,900. They took out a $344,100 mortgage loan with Ameriquest Mortgage Co. to finance it.

That April, Household Finance Corp. — the company that, two years later, would agree to pay out $484 million to settle nationwide allegations of unfair and deceptive lending practices — mailed Trevena a coupon.

"It said take this to the Household Finance office and you will receive $10,000," he said.

Trevena took the company up on its offer.

At Household's office, the representative promised increased credit lines and better interest rates. In 17 days time, his credit line grew to nearly $25,000, then $56,000 two months later.

"To me," he said, "that makes perfect sense. You've got a home that is growing exponentially in value, and you're being offered lines of credit that each offer is better than the prior offer."

Trevena said he wouldn't call it greed. "I would call it lack of foresight," he said. "Remember, the mantra from the government that we're hearing this whole time — 2000 and 9/11 — is spend, spend, spend. Go shopping. That's what our president told us to do.

"And John Trevena did just like every other American. Spent freely."

• • •

Among his purchases was that 43-foot vessel that now has him in trouble with the IRS.

He had TREVENALAW painted on the boat "so that it could be seen a quarter-mile away," he said.

An accountant, he said, told him that he could deduct the boat as a business advertising expense. Trevena did just that until 2007. That's when the IRS conducted a full audit and concluded that none of the boat's expenses were deductible.

Trevena and his wife are in the hole to the IRS to the tune of $124,774.90. The agency filed a federal tax lien against the couple in January. There could be any number of reasons for the lapse of time between the audit and when the lien was filed. Spokesman Michael Dobzinski would not discuss Trevena's case.

Also in 2007, Trevena filed for divorce from his wife and the mother of his son. "The marriage is irretrievably broken," his Sept. 6, 2007, petition says.

The divorce was finalized in February 2009. He agreed to pay Susan Trevena $2,500 a month in alimony for the next eight years and to take care of her car note, too.

Between the divorce and the tax lien, he could no longer afford the house, which has plummeted in value to $529,161, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office.

"Look at the factors you've got," Trevena said. "An unexpected IRS audit and tax bill. A divorce. The economy going into the tank. The value of my home dropping from $1.2 million to less than half. And then couple that with the lack of the ability of everyone in the community to pay for legal services because of the economy.

"Once that happens, what was once affordable became unaffordable. There are just as many lawyers crying themselves to sleep at night over the economy as there are construction workers, bricklayers and day laborers."

• • •

He said he made nothing from some of his most publicized cases.

Brian Sterner, the quadriplegic whose jailhouse wheelchair toss was seen around the world, was a pro bono client.

So was Jean Claude Meus, the Hardee County truck driver Trevena helped free in 2009.

And Maureen Thornton, the former John Hopkins Middle principal who sought back pay from the Pinellas County School District after she was removed from her job in December 2008. Trevena said he didn't take any money from Thornton when she reached a settlement with the district.

"I average between 400 and 500 hours a year in pro bono legal services," he said. "These cases take years of litigation, tens of thousands of dollars that I funded."

His Largo practice caters exclusively to criminal defense and civil rights issues.

"Which are not large moneymakers for attorneys in those practice areas," said Trevena, who estimates that his annual gross is 30 to 40 percent less than the $212,000 he said he made in 2006.

"When you're a criminal defense practitioner, there's only a finite number of potential clients, and they always have the public defender in the event that they cannot afford private counsel. So it makes it especially hard for a criminal defense practitioner because they have the public defender to go to."

• • •

Trevena said his financial setbacks are temporary; he emerged from a bankruptcy in 1999.

He has proposed a five-year repayment plan to the IRS in exchange for a withdrawal of the tax lien. He's waiting to see if the agency will accept his offer.

And a Clearwater attorney is trying to resolve any outstanding issues from the foreclosure.

"I don't think anyone would have predicted the downfall of the economy, and I think that is the driving force," Trevena said. "I'm working out solutions to all the problems I have: the tax problem, the foreclosure problem.

"I can't work on a solution to the economy. None of us can."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Lawyer John Trevena says 'American way' of spending led him to foreclosure, IRS lien 04/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 10:44pm]
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