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Get tough with scofflaw lawyer

Maybe Joe R. Wolfe is lucky he was slapped only with a $4.5-million judgment this week by a Pinellas County jury. People who take someone else's money usually end up in prison.

As a trustee, the Clearwater lawyer "borrowed" virtually the entire $800,000 estate of the late Kapok Tree restaurant founder Richard N. Baumgardner. The money went into a clothing business being started by Wolfe's ex-girlfriend and into his own lavish mansion on the Anclote River. The business failed, and the 15,000-square-foot house is in foreclosure. Wolfe repaid little of the money, all of which was to go to Baumgardner's three children.

While he frittered away the heirs' money, Wolfe stopped sending the Baumgardner children an annual financial report. They trusted him because both families had been friends. Finally, one of the children, William Baumgardner, sued Wolfe. Baumgardner's attorney, Wil Florin, asked jurors to send a message not only to Wolfe but to all lawyers and bankers in whom we entrust our money.

The jury responded by awarding the heirs $4.5-million, which included $3-million in punitive damages. Good for the jurors. Unfortunately, the children may never collect all that is due them.

If Wolfe had robbed a bank of $800,000, he'd be wearing prison pajamas. The Florida Bar's response was to suspend Wolfe from the practice of law for three years.

Not much of a punishment, sort of like being kicked out of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Wolfe must seek the Bar's permission to return to work after the suspension. That will give the Bar another chance to send a message to Wolfe and any other scofflaw member: Hell no.