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Florida Bar goes after two attorneys accused of stealing clients

ST. PETERSBURG — Their faces have beamed from Tampa Bay billboards, their voices from television and radio ads. Now two of the area's most recognizable lawyers are battling for their legal lives.

The Florida Bar has charged William Henry Winters, 51, and Marc Edward Yonker, 34, with deception, misrepresentation, civil theft and more than a dozen rule violations in the practice of law.

An eight-day hearing on the charges began Monday.

The case dates back 10 years to a bitter breakup of the Tampa firm of Richard Mulholland, once a pathfinder in high-marketing, high-volume personal injury law.

The Bar alleges that Winters and Yonker left Mulholland's firm to start their own practice in 2001 after stealing files, wooing clients with misstatements and covering their tracks by inducing a former secretary to hack into Mulholland's computer.

Punishment, if any, could range from an admonishment to disbarment.

In opening statements and testimony, however, Winters, Yonker and their attorney painted a much different picture. Mulholland's firm had declined for years and they were his last two active attorneys, they said. They were the contact points for clients while Mulholland concentrated on personal real estate deals.

Yes, they borrowed files to copy medical statements, police reports and other documents, but only so they could keep serving clients who relied on them. No, they did not participate in any computer hacking, they said.

In fact, Winters testified that he wasn't even aware at first that Mulholland had huge problems with his departure. Winters said he helped replacement lawyers work cases and even tried one of them for free two months after he left.

Tampa lawyer Don Smith told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walt Logan that Winters and Yonker are the victims, pursued by an autocratic ex-boss via lawsuits and Bar complaints.

"They were caught up in, for lack of a better term, a vendetta," Smith said. Mulholland "wants to maintain some revenge."

Both a 2008 jury verdict and a 2010 appellate court ruling found Winters' and Yonker's behavior lacking. "Loathsome," is how the appellate judge put it.

Under Bar rules, Logan can either accept or ignore those opinions.

• • •

Law firm breakups are often messy, particularly in firms like Mulholland's, where a rainmaker boss takes most of the profits while employees work in the trenches with clients.

Though the Bar now has specific rules and guidelines about breakups, including a joint letter that lets clients make informed choices, it was more catch-as-catch-can back in 2001.

The Bar alleges that, more than two months before they resigned, Winters and Yonker made "covert" preparations to take valuable Mulholland clients out the door with them.

They set up a secret office in the bedroom of a former Mulholland secretary, Elizabeth Chapa, who was carrying on an affair with Winters, the Bar said.

Yonker removed about 20 files during his lunch break so Chapa could make copies at Kinko's.

Chapa called clients and told them that Mulholland had retired and his law firm was closing, the Bar alleged. She also hacked into Mulholland's computer, using other employees' passwords, and changed client contact information. That made it harder for Mulholland to contact the clients that Winters and Yonker were wooing.

Ultimately, 64 clients shifted their business, the Bar said, including some of Mulholland's biggest-money cases.

Chapa, a linchpin in the Bar's case, is scheduled to testify today. On Monday, Smith laid groundwork to defuse her testimony, noting that she has already committed perjury.

• • •

In a 2005 deposition, she denied computer hacking or any wrongdoing. Then she changed her story and became a key witness against Winters and Yonker.

That's because Mulholland threatened her with criminal and civil prosecution, Smith said.

"Her credibility has been at issue from day one," he said. "It was self-preservation."

Bar counsel Henry Paul disagreed. "She realized she had made a big mistake" in the deposition. "She realized, 'I've got a problem and I have to make it right.' "

Chapa testified for Mulholland when he sued for civil theft. A 2008 verdict awarded him $2 million in damages and fees.

Yonker paid his share, about $800,000, but Winters appealed. In a 2010 ruling, 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge Craig Villanti agreed that misrepresentation, fraud and theft had occurred, but that Mulholland could not collect damages because he never proved that misdeeds caused clients to leave.

Clients had testified that they moved their business to Winters and Yonker because those were the lawyers they knew.

It was a monetary win for Winters, but Villanti added fuel to the Bar case by adding that "the facts of this case are enough to make any legal ethics professor cringe."

It is Bar practice to wait for all civil litigation to end before instituting disciplinary proceedings.

Logan is hearing the case because cases involving Hillsborough lawyers are typically heard in Pinellas, and vice versa. The Florida Supreme Court will have the final say.

Mulholland, 77, will testify later. He now practices in a small Hyde Park office, taking on occasional cases.

.fast facts

On the Web

To read previous coverage of the dispute between Richard Mulholland and William Winters and Marc Yonker, go to links.tampabay.com.

Florida Bar goes after two attorneys accused of stealing clients 03/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 11:45pm]

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