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Disbarred, jailed lawyer charged with more felonies

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has filed 10 new felony charges against disbarred Clearwater lawyer Richard Da Fonte.

Da Fonte is accused of stealing money from clients and financial institutions. Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson said the new first-, second- and third-degree felony charges, together with a previous charge, could carry up to 240 years in prison. More than 10 victims are involved, he said.

Friday's charges add to Da Fonte's growing mountain of legal troubles. On Wednesday he was sentenced to five months and 29 days in the Pinellas County Jail after a criminal contempt hearing for distributing money from an estate without court approval.

In February, he was charged with stealing $400,000 from a Texas client.

Last fall he was disbarred for his involvement in two real estate transactions where money was missing.

Things have already fallen apart for his victims.

Money planned to buy a business, put a daughter in a prom dress or pay for an ailing mother's care is gone. Families have been disrupted, lives knocked off track.

Long after Richard DaFonte has disappeared from the news his victims will still be trying to recover.

Left empty-handed

Almost nine months since the sale of her late mother's St. Petersburg home, Sharon Dore has yet to see a penny of the proceeds. Da Fonte admitted in a court hearing that he stole it.

The emotional and financial toll has been severe, Dore said.

"She loved that house. She used to say, 'This is going to be your house.' This is all she had,'' said Dore, a retiree who lives with her husband in a mobile home in Pinellas Park.

When her mother became ill and needed to move to an assisted living community, her family hoped the proceeds from the sale of the home would pay the bills. Another lawyer bungled the initial transaction, so two years ago, the family turned to Da Fonte.

He impressed them. After the closing, though, they heard nothing about the money from the property's sale until Da Fonte's former associate called. There was no money, they learned.

"I said, 'This is a joke, right?' And he said, 'No.' And went on to tell me that Richard Da Fonte had taken the money,'' Dore said.

Da Fonte, 50, owes Dore, her daughter, who lives in Orlando, and a brother in Port Richey more than $110,000.

Of Da Fonte's sentencing last week for illegally distributing money from her mother's estate, Dore said: "He's ruined a lot of lives. It's a little bit of closure to us.''

'I'm suffering'

Shakawat Hossain can't say the same.

"I feel that whatever he did, he deserves more punishment, because he didn't harm me only,'' said Hossain, who lives in St. Petersburg.

"I'm (figuratively) in jail now, because my children, my wife, everybody is suffering because I don't have money. The same thing is happening to his children. His family is suffering for his action.''

Hossain says the lawyer, whom he hired in 2003, stole about $235,000 of his money, much of it earmarked to buy a business. Now the Bangladeshi immigrant says he can't pay his bills, may lose his home and likely will have to uproot his children, who are excelling in St. Petersburg schools.

A few weeks ago, Hossain agonized about being unable to buy his daughter a dress for her prom.

"The children are the No. 1 issue,'' he said.

Restitution plans

Wednesday afternoon, Da Fonte's sister and a handful of close friends appeared stricken as he removed his tie and was handcuffed and led away to jail.

Larry Sandefer, a Clearwater lawyer who is representing Da Fonte, said his client has been cooperating with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

"We've been out there at least four different times for at least two hours each time and he's fully cooperating and opened up everything that he has, and his main aim is to try to come up with a plan to pay people back,'' Sandefer said.

With Da Fonte in jail, plans for restitution could make that difficult, the lawyer said, adding that some of the money to repay former clients was supposed to come from the sale of Da Fonte's practice.

That sale, though, is entangled in a legal dispute with former associate Benjamin Hillard, who purchased Da Fonte's practice in July for $1-million. Da Fonte is suing Hillard and his firm for the money. Hillard has countersued, claiming Da Fonte provided false and misleading business and financial information about the practice and hid Da Fonte's thefts.

Crises multiply

Da Fonte's troubles began simply, Sandefer said.

"He just did a transaction and made a mistake in the way he did it and it put him in a hole,'' he said.

Da Fonte then tried to dig his way out by turning to a trust account in which he kept his clients' money.

"He just tried to stay afloat long enough to replenish the money, but he just couldn't do it,'' Sandefer said.

Da Fonte is "down, but resigned'' to being in jail, his lawyer said.

"He's concerned about his wife and still concerned about the victims. Now he's lost the job he had, so the everyday bills are totally on his wife's shoulders.''

Da Fonte has a June 3 court date, but there will be no trial, Sandefer said.

"He has said ever since that he did wrong. He has admitted everything to the state attorney'' and will place himself at the mercy of the court, Sandefer said.

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

Disbarred, jailed lawyer charged with more felonies 05/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2008 1:45pm]
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