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Criminal charge against lawyer took a long, winding road

TAMPA — Two years ago, a man informed authorities that his wife's divorce attorney had raided his bank account.

It wasn't the usual hyperbole.

Without permission, attorney Jessica Ann Bennett took $50,800 from Daniel McCoy's Merrill Lynch checking account, court records state.

McCoy complained to the Florida Bar and to law enforcement.

The state Supreme Court disbarred Bennett, meaning she can't practice law in Florida. She put up no defense. But in August 2011, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office released her from criminal prosecution, citing concerns about proof.

Only recently was a criminal charge filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, and it wasn't filed by Hillsborough prosecutors.

At a cost of $10,000, McCoy hired a lawyer to investigate the dropped case, he said. That lawyer asked the office to step aside and seek a special prosecutor to consider charges.

Why would Hillsborough prosecutors step aside?

Bennett, 35, used to be a Hillsborough prosecutor.

• • •

Make no mistake, she wasn't the sort of assistant state attorney who put down roots deep into the concrete of downtown Tampa. Her association with the office began in 2003, the year she graduated from the Florida Coastal School of Law, and it ended in early 2006.

Back then, she was Jessica Ann Khan. She had not yet married Kevin Bennett, a deputy at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the agency that would later investigate her and refer a charge to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

When the two married in late 2006, it happened right there at the courthouse, and Circuit Judge Herbert Baumann Jr. presided over the vows.

The next year, a baby arrived. Lawyer Bennett put an "Esquire" behind her name and opened the solo practice Bennett Law Group on U.S. 301 in Riverview. She took on both civil and criminal cases.

At his own job, Deputy Bennett earned high praise. In reviews, he was called hard-working and aggressive, "a man of his word."

Jessica Bennett's reviews started coming in, too.

The negative ones came by way of the Florida Bar, the agency that polices lawyers under the auspices of the Florida Supreme Court. When Bennett didn't contest the complaints, the findings of guilt added up, and the disciplinary actions became a matter of public record.

Five clients who hired her from 2008 to 2009 later reported that she accepted fees but stopped communicating, records show.

The McCoys added two more complaints. Daniel McCoy informed the Bar about the bank withdrawals. The account was in his name, but his wife kept a debit card for emergencies. When she hired Bennett to take over the divorce case, Christine McCoy provided the card number but limited spending to $500, she told investigators.

She also gave Bennett jewelry — a wedding ring and bracelet — to hold as collateral.

The husband noticed money disappearing from the account. In all, there were 33 withdrawals made by Bennett Law Group in late 2009, court records state.

McCoy initially suspected his wife was in cahoots with Bennett, but when he confronted Christine, she appeared "genuinely ignorant of the debits," he told an investigator.

In her own Bar complaint, Christine McCoy described the six months of efforts, including a police report, required to reclaim her wedding ring after the McCoys decided to stay married. The divorce case was dismissed in May 2010.

That spring, another marriage was struggling. Deputy Bennett filed to divorce his lawyer wife. At work, his supervisors started hearing about personal and financial problems.

• • •

Daniel McCoy saw the Bar complaint bear fruit. He knew that a detective who interviewed Bennett in March 2011 had referred a case against her for prosecution. It shocked McCoy when no charge materialized.

"The State Attorney's Office that dropped those charges never called anybody," he said. "They just dropped it."

From his vantage point, it looked too cozy: Bennett getting a pass from her former office.

"Obviously, I'm cynical, but I believe it's corrupt, the whole legal system, and it's a buddy-buddy system," he said.

Mike Sinacore, felony bureau chief at the State Attorney's Office, researched the Bennett case Friday after an inquiry by the Tampa Bay Times.

He said the two prosecutors who were involved, Sheri Maxim and Ada Carmona, did not know Bennett or work with her. The office does not back away from every case involving an employee or relative, he said.

"The determination was made that there was insufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.

Sinacore didn't offer particulars because there's now a pending case by a special prosecutor, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed McCabe in March 2012. The official appointment states that Hillsborough State Attorney Mark A. Ober "voluntarily disqualified" himself and asked for a special prosecutor "to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest or impropriety."

And that's true, except that Ober disqualified himself seven months after his prosecutors threw out the case, records show.

Here's what had happened: McCoy, unhappy that Hillsborough dropped the case, hired Tampa lawyer James Souza to investigate, hoping he could put pressure on the office.

Souza, according to Sinacore, asked Chief Assistant State Attorney Karen L. Stanley to review the no-file call by prosecutors.

"At that meeting, Mr. Souza, for the first time, asked that we remove ourselves from the case," Sinacore said. "Ms. Stanley, while not thinking there was necessarily a conflict, decided that because an appearance of a conflict had been raised by Mr. Souza and he was specifically asking, it was best to allow another agency to review the case."

That's when McCabe's office launched a new investigation.

• • •

A few months later, the Bennetts did what many people do when it gets hot in Florida.

They packed up and moved to North Carolina.

Jessica Bennett, by email, declined an interview request.

"Given the fact that a criminal case is pending," she said, "I have been advised not to say anything."

Kevin Bennett didn't go through with the divorce. He quit his $29-an-hour deputy job in June, ending a 10-year career.

"He and his family are moving to North Carolina, where he has accepted a job with NASCAR," a supervisor wrote in his file.

Bennett wanted to work for NASCAR but hasn't found a job yet, he told the Times last week.

Nor has his wife been admitted to the Bar in North Carolina, records show.

She was arrested in High Point, N.C., in December and extradited to Tampa in January, then released on bail.

She pleaded not guilty to a charge of grand theft.

The next hearing is Monday before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta. If a trial comes, visiting special prosecutors will present the case.

Bennett filled out paperwork asking for a public defender.

She listed zero income. The court declared her indigent.

Just last April, the Supreme Court ordered her to pay $50,800 restitution to Daniel McCoy.

Has he seen it?

"Not a dime," he said.

Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or pryan@tampabay.com

Criminal charge against lawyer took a long, winding road 03/09/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 8:50pm]

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