Richard Da Fonte, the disbarred Clearwater lawyer accused of stealing more than $1.7 million from clients, was sentenced to 14 years in prison and 15 years' probation.
Da Fonte, 51, also has been ordered to make financial restitution to the people and institutions he stole from and to pay court costs.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone sentenced the disgraced lawyer late Friday afternoon in a courtroom packed with his family and friends, many of whom had earlier formed a circle in the hall to pray. The small courtroom was so crowded that Bulone invited some to sit in the jury box and in extra seats nearby.
Some of Da Fonte's victims were also present.
Shakawat Hossain of St. Petersburg hired Da Fonte in 2003. He said the lawyer stole about $235,000, money he planned to use to buy a gas station and convenience store. The Bangladeshi immigrant says the theft has taken a toll on his health and ruined him financially. His home is in foreclosure and he is worried about his children's future. Instead of owning a gas station and convenience store, he and his wife now work for one.
Pinellas Park resident Sharon Dore and her family lost $110,000 when they hired Da Fonte to handle the sale of her late mother's St. Petersburg home. The money was supposed to go to Dore, her daughter and a brother.
Joan Kelly, a widow, paid for her Seminole home in full in April 2007. That summer, while she was in Cape Cod, she began getting calls from lawyers offering help with a problem. It was foreclosure. Da Fonte had taken almost $200,000 meant to pay her home's previous owners.
Winnie Yang of Clearwater couldn't wait to have her say during the lengthy hearing. The lawyer stole $400,000 from her brother-in-law Kenneth Yang, who lives in Texas. The money was from a real estate transaction involving Yang, her husband and her brother-in-law.
"He lied to me. I trusted him. He knew he was going to be disbarred, but he still took our case. Look in my eye, Mr. Da Fonte,'' she said.
"He forged Kenneth Yang's signature. He told me he is well-to-do. … He stole from a restaurant worker. He stole his retirement money. … Where's your Mercedes-Benz? Where is your boat? Where did you hide the $1.7 million? Where is it?''
Before Da Fonte's victims spoke, they listened impatiently as his priest, fellow parishioners, sister, brother-in-law, a mother whose son he mentored in Boy Scouts, lawyer friends and others begged for leniency. What he did was out of character, they said. He made a mistake and should be allowed to stay out of prison so he can work to pay back the money he took.
"I believe from what I understand, Mr. Da Fonte is very remorseful for what happened,'' Father Pat Rebel of St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Largo said.
Alan Hafez, a businessman, made an impassioned plea, calling Da Fonte his rock and mentor.
"Please give him another chance. Please give him another chance,'' the Egyptian immigrant said, sobbing.
"I have no excuse,'' Da Fonte said when it was time for him to speak. "When I took the money, I always believed I had the ability to pay it back.''
Larry Sandefer, his Clearwater lawyer, said Da Fonte had cooperated with the State Attorney's Office. He said his client had gotten involved with a business transaction that was unfamiliar to him and had dipped into his clients' trust account to get himself out of a financial hole.
"As he tried to do that, he had to continue to pay his office staff, his monthly bills,'' Sandefer said.
When everything fell apart, Da Fonte approached him for legal help.
"He wanted to turn himself in,'' the lawyer said.
Sandefer said his client had hoped to pay back his victims from the sale of his business, real estate and life insurance. The business, though, which Da Fonte sold to a former associate, is tied up in a legal dispute. Foreclosure is pending on his office condominium, and his home is in foreclosure, Sandefer said. His $3 million life insurance has lapsed.
Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson is satisfied with Da Fonte's sentence. "But I am concerned for my victims, because obviously, they're not seeing any reimbursement quickly,'' he said.
"I'm skeptical that he'll ever be able to repay.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.