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Woman at center of Winters & Yonker law firm dispute testifies in Bar hearing

ST. PETERSBURG — Her office affair 10 years ago accelerated the breakup of one high-profile Tampa law firm and kick-started the birth of another.

Her testimony later helped convince a jury that William Winters and Marc Yonker — ''the aggressive lawyers" of TV ads — had behaved scurrilously in 2001, when they left Richard Mulholland's firm to start their own.

Now, with the Florida Bar taking aim at her onetime friends and bosses, Elizabeth Chapa, 39, is in the middle again.

Composed and matter-of-fact, she testified for three hours Tuesday in a Bar disciplinary hearing, rehashing her decade-old tale of legal intrigue.

Mulholland, once a pathfinder of high-volume personal injury law, was down to just two lawyers in 2001. Winters, now 51, ran day-to-day operations and handled trials. Yonker, now 34, worked up cases.

Chapa was Yonker's legal assistant and Winters' paramour.

On April 26, Mulholland ordered Winters to fire Chapa because of the affair. That night, she said, Winters and Yonker came to her house to say they were starting their own firm and wanted her to come along.

On the two lawyers' instruction, she said, she bought supplies, created a letterhead and turned her spare bedroom into an office, with phone and fax. Yonker brought her Mulholland client files at lunch so she could copy them. She never doubted that clients would switch to the new firm, she said, because Winters and Yonker did all the work.

Then, with Yonker's knowledge, she began hacking into Mulholland's computer, changing client phone numbers, she said.

The Bar contends Winters and Yonker told clients Mulholland was retiring or going bankrupt, but Chapa said she never heard such misrepresentation.

Yonker resigned in July 2001 — two months after Chapa was fired. Winters left about a week later. About 70 or so clients came along, Chapa said.

In 2005, Mulholland's office manager discovered the computer system had erroneous information about clients who had left for the new firm. A retired federal agent hired by Mulholland found that someone had used company passwords in 2001 to hack into the system.

By then Chapa and Winters had ended their affair and she had left for another job. But when Mulholland sued Winters and Yonker for civil theft and racketeering, Chapa swore under oath that she knew nothing about computer tampering.

Then she recanted.

She lied at first because she knew the tampering was probably illegal, she testified Tuesday. She hired an attorney who told her to come clean.

Mulholland agreed not to sue her or bring up her marital infidelities in court. The agent said he would ask prosecutors to leave her alone. So in a new deposition, she described the hacking scheme. Mulholland later paid the balance of her attorney's bill.

Her testimony Tuesday left one question hanging. Michael Sankey, the retired agent, had testified Monday that 29 client files were breached via four employee passwords, including Yonker's.

Chapa insisted Tuesday she used only one password, that of a co-worker out on maternity leave. Only 16 files were changed with that password, Sankey said.

Winters and Yonker have both denied any computer tampering.

The Bar hearing on charges of theft, misrepresentation and other violations continues today.

Woman at center of Winters & Yonker law firm dispute testifies in Bar hearing 03/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 10:10pm]
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