The Florida Bar is right to investigate Spring Hill probate attorney Melanie Burpee. The Hernando County Sheriff's Office also should scrutinize Burpee's representation of Joe McCall in a lopsided real estate transaction.
McCall is a 47-year-old widower, battling depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and must make twice-weekly trips to a church food pantry for subsidence. He retained Burpee at the recommendation of a BayCare Behavioral Health Care case manager. That agency also should question the wisdom of sending fragile mental health clients to Burpee for legal representation.
Burpee, six weeks after obtaining power of attorney, sold McCall's house for $15,000 even though the Hernando Property Appraiser's Office listed a market value at $41,449, and a private company estimated its worth at $38,800. McCall had purchased the Spring Hill home 11 years ago for $39,500.
Burpee didn't have to look far for a buyer for this bargain. The house sold to Alicia Devanna, the secretary in Burpee's law office, whose witnessing signature appears on McCall's financial documents prepared by Burpee, including power of attorney and trust agreements.
Times staff writer John Woodrow Cox detailed the dubious transaction and Burpee's flimsy rationalizations including:
• That she had the house appraised, but declined to reveal the value or the identity of the appraiser.
• That Burpee had done McCall a favor, according to an account from the client's family, because he would have lost the house March 31 due to unpaid property taxes. That, too, is a stretch considering no one had applied for a tax deed and the county hadn't taken steps to seize the home, even though McCall was about $1,000 in arrears.
• That the home needed significant repair work, though Burpee declined to say how much.
• That Devanna, the secretary, responded to a reporter's questions by slamming the door and screaming "talk to the attorneys.''
• That McCall had approved the sale and price, the lawyer said, because "he called all the shots.''
That tale is just as hard to swallow.
If McCall was capable of calling all the shots why would he retain a probate lawyer and grant her power of attorney? McCall, by his own account, suffers mental illness, lacks self-confidence and has fought depression since his wife died in 2010. He wanted to sell the house, he said, because living there stirred painful memories of his wife.
Burpee had a fiduciary responsibility to represent McCall's best interests and instead shepherded through a deal that unloaded the house at just a third of its listed value to the benefit of her own secretary.
No wonder McCall's relatives are questioning the transaction. Authorities need to do likewise.