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Prison term of disbarred lawyer Richard Da Fonte sticks

Disbarred Clearwater lawyer Richard Da Fonte, who asked a judge to reconsider his 14-year sentence for stealing more than $1.7 million from clients, has been denied his request for shortened prison time.

"I think the defense is very lucky that the law is that I cannot increase the sentence,'' Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone said Friday.

At his sentencing in March, Da Fonte, 51, faced up to 240 years on 11 counts of first-, second- and third-degree felonies. At the time, he also was ordered to make financial restitution to the people and institutions he had stolen from and to pay court costs.

During last week's hearing, Da Fonte's Clearwater lawyer Larry Sandefer said his client had been cooperative with the State Attorney's Office, that he was remorseful and didn't take the money for his own benefit.

"People wrongfully believe that Mr. Da Fonte has money hidden,'' he said.

Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson countered that Da Fonte continued to steal money after he agreed to be disbarred and took $400,000 from Kenneth Yang, who lives in Texas and who was one of three family members Da Fonte represented in a real estate transaction.

During the hearing, Sandefer played a tape of portions of Da Fonte's interview with the state attorney's office. On the tape, the disbarred lawyer said he had been involved in the scheme and that his problems stemmed from a complex business transaction. He said he took money from his clients' trust account to get out of deepening financial difficulties and had planned to pay it back.

Sandefer said his client "got in over his head'' and began "robbing Peter to pay Paul.'' Da Fonte would be able to make restitution to his victims more quickly if he had a shorter prison sentence, he continued.

"Let him get out and work solely for these people,'' Sandefer pleaded.

Sandefer said that some clients who lost money were disappointed with the 14-year sentence because it lessened their chances of getting restitution. He brought up the ongoing legal dispute between Da Fonte and former associate Benjamin Hillard, who purchased Da Fonte's practice for $1 million in 2007. Da Fonte is suing Hillard for the money, but Hillard claims he unknowingly bought a damaged practice. Sandefer has said that money from the sale of the business could help compensate Da Fonte's victims.

Several victims also spoke. At least one was in favor of Da Fonte's sentence being shortened, but Pinellas Park resident William Dore, who spoke on behalf of his wife, Sharon, was angry.

"I have no sympathy for him,'' said Dore, who presented a letter from his wife's doctor saying that her health had been affected by her dealings with Da Fonte. His wife and her family lost $110,000 when they hired Da Fonte to handle the sale of her late mother's St. Petersburg home.

Another victim, Shakawat Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant, said Da Fonte got "a big break'' with his 14-year sentence. Hossain told the court that a shortened sentence would offer no financial advantage to his family.

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

Prison term of disbarred lawyer Richard Da Fonte sticks 06/30/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 2:02pm]
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