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Suit alleges Spring Hill lawyer, assistant mishandled money

SPRING HILL — Attorneys are stewards of the law, trained in the workings of the legal system.

So when they appear on the other side of the law — as defendants accused of wrongdoing — it gets notice.

That's the case with attorney David Allen Buck and his legal assistant, Elizabeth Fagan Chichester, at Buck and Associates law firm in Spring Hill.

In a civil lawsuit filed in late February and amended March 18, one of the firm's former clients, Loretta Bretana, is claiming professional malpractice and fraud in relation to the handling of her personal finances. It seeks damages between $750,000 and $1-million, said Bretana's attorney, Scott Ilgenfritz of Tampa, a well-known specialist in financial fraud litigation.

"You have a lawyer and a legal assistant who took advantage of a financially unsophisticated client," Ilgenfritz said.

The 36-page complaint, laden with accusations about "secret profits" and "unauthorized checks," is the talk of the Hernando County Courthouse. Some insiders know it just by its civil case number: 2008-665.

Ilgenfritz said he considered, but has not requested, a criminal investigation or state Bar complaint.

For two months, Bretana's assertions went unanswered. But Monday — only after being prompted by a judge's order demanding a response — Buck filed a defense that challenges everything about Bretana's charges. He said he is also considering a counter lawsuit for defamation.

"It is completely frivolous and without merit, and we intend to be completely vindicated," Buck said in a recent interview.

Buck, who bought his law firm in 1997 from an attorney who was disbarred, specializes in estate planning and managing life savings for elderly clients. His 10-year disciplinary history with the Florida Bar is clean.

Until it is resolved, the lawsuit is likely to receive a lot of attention because many in this sprawling retirement community face financial end-of-life decisions similar to Bretana's.

Bretana alleges abuses after granting Buck and Chichester power of attorney, a legal designation that gives the firm broad discretion in making decisions for clients.

Buck and Chichester combined hold power of attorney for about 50 clients in Hernando County, according to public records.

Chichester and her attorney, Jimmy Brown of Brooksville, did not respond to requests for comment. In late April, Brown asked the judge for more time to respond to Bretana's allegations.

According to the lawsuit — which is largely disputed by Buck — Bretana, 65, turned to Buck's law firm in 1999 for help managing her assets and those of her mother-in-law's sister.

The law firm prepared estate papers for Bretana and Mary Labbiento, who died in 2002, and appointed Buck and Chichester as representatives of the estate. The alleged financial misdeeds began in 2000 after the firm recommended that the women make private mortgage loans to expand their investments.

In the next six years, the lawsuit charges, Buck and Chichester made more than 30 questionable loans, checks or related transactions totaling $1.5-million.

Bretana discovered the accounting in March 2007 when she went to prepare her taxes. Chichester reportedly told Bretana's accountant that she didn't owe taxes because she had no assets or income.

Buck said Chichester never made that statement to the accountant. "There is no money missing," he said.

He suspects the lawsuit is derived from Bretana failing to account for her investments on her taxes. The filing acknowledges that Bretana "unwittingly underpaid" her federal income taxes, but she blames it on the firm for failing to inform her adequately.

"Now, for whatever reason, she is trying to come back and claim amnesia," Buck said.

How much Bretana knew about the various transactions is key to the controversy.

The lawsuit alleges checks were forged in a few cases and that the law firm took steps to conceal some loans by not recording them in county records or not sending Bretana the account statements. Ilgenfritz said his client is not financially savvy, but certainly remembers what she approved.

If legitimate, it is difficult to decipher how much Bretana lost because the accounting is ambiguous.

One of the main goals of the lawsuit, Ilgenfritz said, is to get a complete accounting of where all the money went.

The lawsuit identifies two loans for "undisclosed" amounts, including one to Buck, and can't account for nearly $225,000 in certificates of deposit.

The interest charged on some of the mortgages was substantially low (one at 5 percent), while others didn't appear to charge interest, the lawsuit states. For nearly all the loans, it's unclear whether interest was ever paid, the filing indicates.

A more glaring transaction is a $121,000 mystery check from the women's funds written to an unknown account number.

Buck said it paid off an outstanding mortgage in Labbiento's name. He said if Bretana's counsel had questioned him on these various deals, he could have fully explained them without a lawsuit.

"The paper trail is clear as day," Buck said, "and the paper trail in all these other transactions is going to be the same way."

Buck's response to the lawsuit, filed by his attorney, Hayes Johnson of Gulfport, Miss., lists 22 defenses and asks the judge to dismiss Bretana's lawsuit for numerous technical reasons.

It specifically takes exception with how the lawsuit was written, saying it violates legal procedures because it includes "scandalous matter" and "sham proceedings."

Buck asked the judge to sanction Bretana or her attorney.

"These words constitute accusations, not facts and appear designed to harass or embarrass the defendants," the filing reads.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Suit alleges Spring Hill lawyer, assistant mishandled money 05/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 7:39pm]
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