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Court to hold ex-lawyer's feet to the fire over estate

Disbarred Clearwater lawyer Richard Da Fonte faces a criminal contempt hearing today for illegally distributing money from the estate of the mother of a Pinellas Park beneficiary.

Da Fonte also has been charged with stealing $400,000 from a Texas client and is under investigation for allegedly stealing money from other Pinellas County residents.

Today's hearing in the probate division of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court involves the estate of a St. Petersburg woman, the late June Barry, which Da Fonte is alleged to have distributed without court approval. Pinellas Park resident Sharon Dore contends that Da Fonte owes her and other beneficiaries more than $110,000 from the estate.

Da Fonte handled the sale of Barry's St. Petersburg property last year and was supposed to hold the proceeds in a trust account. But at a February hearing for violating a court order to turn over the money, Da Fonte said the money was no longer in his trust account.

According to a court transcript, he testified that the money was used for his practice and to pay bills, some of which he acknowledged might have been personal.

Da Fonte also told the court that he did not have the cash to replace money taken from the estate.

His assets, he said, are jointly owned with his wife, who is planning to file for divorce.

He has not been charged with taking the money from the Barry estate.

Da Fonte also faces accusations from St. Petersburg resident Shakawat Hossain, 46, a refugee from Bangladesh, who said the former lawyer owes him about $235,000. Hossain, who said Da Fonte was supposed to hold the money in trust for him, has filed a complaint with the Florida Bar and is seeking compensation from its victims' compensation fund.

Da Fonte, disbarred last fall, is charged with stealing $400,000 from Kenneth Yang of Texas, one of three family members he represented in a real estate transaction in late October.

In February, he turned himself in at the Pinellas County Jail to be booked on the grand theft charge. He has pleaded not guilty.

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has said it is investigating additional complaints against Da Fonte. In a pretrial hearing on April 28, the possibility of additional charges was discussed with the court and his attorney. Da Fonte has another court appearance on June 3.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Court to hold ex-lawyer's feet to the fire over estate 05/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2008 5:24pm]

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