LARGO — Did lies, stolen files and computer hacking 10 years ago give birth to a young law firm or are two high-profile Tampa lawyers, having built their business over the years, now the victims of overzealous regulators and a dishonest secretary?
Those were the two contrary scenarios argued Monday as Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walt Logan begins to ponder the legal fate of William Winters and Marc Yonker.
Winters, 51, and Yonker, 34, tout themselves as Tampa Bay's "aggressive attorneys'' on ubiquitous billboards and TV ads. But before they rose to prominence, they ground away at cases as employees of Richard Mulholland, a pioneer in high-volume personal injury law.
The Florida Bar alleges that Winters and Yonker broke several laws and rules when they split with Mulholland in 2001, a bitter breakup that has played out for years in other courtrooms.
The two lawyers "left in stealth" and set up a new practice through "dishonest conduct that is disrespectful of the court and the legal profession as a whole,'' said Bar counsel Henry Paul in closing arguments to a five-day hearing.
According to the Bar:
• Before he left Mulholland's firm, Yonker sneaked out several dozen files from the office so they could be copied overnight, hoping to take those clients along when he started the new firm.
• The two lawyers lied to clients, telling them Mulholland was retiring or going bankrupt so they should shift their business to the new firm.
• On Yonker's instruction, a former Mulholland secretary hacked into Mulholland's computers, changing names and addresses so he couldn't contact the clients the two lawyers expected to lure away.
Similar allegations were raised in a 2008 lawsuit filed by Mulholland and a 2010 decision where 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge Craig Villanti described the facts as "enough to make any legal ethics professor cringe.''
Such language, coming from an appellate judge, could be particularly damaging because under Bar disciplinary proceedings, Logan can take it into account as he recommends final action to the Florida Supreme Court. But Logan gave a boost to Winters and Yonker on Monday by indicating he will stick to evidence presented directly to him last week.
Neither man had anything to do with any computer hacking, said Tampa attorney Don Smith, who specializes in Bar defense. The culprit was ex-Mulholland secretary Elizabeth Chapa, "the ultimate opportunist'' who is lying to save her own skin, Smith said.
Chapa, now 49, was fired in April 2001 because she was having an affair with Winters. That night, she testified, the two lawyers met at her house and began plotting to set up their own firm. Yonker began bringing her client files to copy overnight, she said, and told her to hack into Mulholland's computer to change client information.
Smith suggested Chapa changed client names and addresses on her own because she was angry at Mulholland for firing her.
As for copying files, Smith suggested that when firms break up, clients usually go with the lawyers they know are handling their cases. Mulholland was a controlling boss who would have blocked their access to files had they been up-front with him.
Logan has several weeks to issue a recommendation.