Thursday, December 14, 2017
Public safety

Pinellas lawyer accused of fondling boy is being held without bail

CLEARWATER — An attorney representing Pinellas County lawyer Robert Tankel, who is accused of fondling a 9-year-old boy during a Big Brothers Big Sisters outing, said in court Wednesday that a witness never saw Tankel touch the child.

Tankel, 57, was arrested Tuesday on a charge of lewd and lascivious molestation. A judge ordered Wednesday that he remain without bail at the Pinellas County jail, pending a bond hearing later this week.

Tankel is humiliated by the allegations, said attorney Todd Foster, adding that his arrest is "more than a huge mistake."

Three attorneys representing Tankel were present during his first appearance hearing Wednesday. Foster said he had spoken to the witness, who is the boy's Big Brother.

"That gentleman said that he never saw anything inappropriate, as alleged here," Foster said, "and he was never (more) than 10 feet away from Mr. Tankel."

Tankel's charge stems from a June 17 Big Brothers Big Sisters outing to Clearwater's Bright House Field. According to an arrest affidavit, Tankel touched the boy's genitals over his clothing and also rubbed his thigh.

The following day, the child's mother called police.

At Wednesday's hearing, Foster told the judge that Tankel is a respected lawyer who has been married for about 30 years. He has two sons and a daughter. Two of his children are in law school.

Tankel's wife, Terri, and one of his sons attended the hearing. They declined to comment Wednesday.

"He has no prior criminal convictions," Foster said. "He doesn't present a threat to the community, and he also isn't a flight risk."

Still, Pinellas Judge Chris Hellinger said Tankel's possibility of receiving bail will be discussed at a bond hearing Friday.

Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Susan Rolston said Tankel, who had previously been matched with a child, is not currently mentoring one. She did not answer questions Wednesday about his history with the nonprofit.

"Our volunteers and staff undergo thorough screening and background checks," Rolston said in a prepared statement, adding that volunteers and families are "trained to immediately make law enforcement and child protective services authorities aware of any reports of abuse or exploitation."

Clearwater police said they are not investigating any other cases involving Tankel.

Tankel, who practices law in Dunedin, rose to prominence representing condominium and homeowners associations in foreclosure cases against residents who couldn't pay their fees.

Since the start of 2013, Tankel has represented at least 57 different homeowners and condo associations in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. His pugnacious style has twice landed him in trouble with the Florida Bar, and his offer to buy properties from the HOAs he represents "is, at a minimum, problematic,'' one legal expert told the Times in 2011.

Tankel's arrest will not keep him from practicing law while his case is pending. He would face suspension by the Florida Supreme Court and discipline by the Florida Bar, ranging from reprimand to disbarment, only if he were convicted.

Times staff writer Susan Taylor Martin and news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

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