ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa attorneys William Winters and Marc Yonker, whose faces beam from billboards and TV commercials, can rest easier today.
The Florida Bar had charged them with deceiving clients, stealing files and, in the case of Yonker, hacking into a computer 10 years ago when they split with their former law firm.
But Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walt Logan rejected the most serious of those allegations Tuesday and found Winters and Yonker had committed only two technical rule violations.
During four days of testimony last month, there was no suggestion "that any clients were harmed or not properly represented,'' Logan wrote in findings that will now be submitted to the Florida Supreme Court, which makes a final determination.
Tampa attorney Richard Mulholland had contended that Winters and Yonker damaged his firm by leaving in a secretive, scurrilous fashion. But Logan suggested that the firm's messy breakup was partly brought on by Mulholland himself.
"Mr. Mulholland ran his office in a very autocratic manner,'' Logan wrote, "and as a part of that practice had developed a pattern of immediately dismissing employees who he perceived were thinking of leaving."
Elizabeth Chapa, a legal assistant and Winters' girlfriend at the time, did hack into Mulholland's computer and change client information, Logan found, but the Bar did not prove that Yonker put her up to it as she had claimed.
Tampa lawyer Don Smith, who represented Winters and Yonker, suggested during closing arguments that Chapa changed files out of anger because Mulholland had fired her four days earlier.
Chapa testified that she changed 16 files, which computer records confirmed. Yet 60 to 70 of Mulholland's best clients switched to the new firm, Smith noted. If the computer hacking was designed to keep Mulholland from contacting clients, as the Bar charged, why didn't Chapa change all the files?
Bar discipline must be supported by "clear and convincing'' evidence, a high standard of proof in civil court.
"Ms. Chapa's testimony was far less than clear and convincing,'' Logan wrote. "Even Ms. Chapa on cross-examination indicated that some of her testimony was based on muddled recall.''
The Bar had also alleged that the two lawyers, while wooing clients to their new firm, said that Mulholland was retiring or going bankrupt — lies that would be serious violations of Bar rules.
The Bar typically waits until all related civil action runs its course before bringing disciplinary action. Winters, Yonker and Mulholland's feud through the court system lasted until 2010.
Logan noted that several witnesses' memories had blurred since 2001, making it hard to discern what Winters and Yonker may or may not have told clients.
Yonker acknowledged that he removed Mulholland files during his lunch hour to copy client information before leaving to set up the new firm. Winters took several client files with him when he left.
In 2008, Mulholland won a $2 million civil judgment based in part on this "civil theft.'' An appellate judge later blasted the lawyers for their ethics in how they left Mulholland.
Logan gave no weight to those earlier court rulings, saying he had no idea what evidence those courts may have considered.
He also noted that much of the paperwork in files typically belongs to the client, not the firm. Winters and Yonker were the attorneys working on the cases and the Bar presented no evidence that any of Mulholland's work product was taken.
Winters and Yonker having information from the files "served the best interests of the clients,'' Logan wrote.
Nevertheless, taking the physical files was a second-degree misdemeanor and therefore a technical violation of Bar rules. Logan also found a technical violation in how Winters and Yonker originally set up their letterhead.
Winters and the Bar declined comment. Yonker could not be reached. Winters and Yonker and the Bar will mediate further differences Friday, which could include negotiations on any punishment.