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Trials set for marina managers

John "Rick" Ufnal once said that marinas are extremely expensive businesses to run.

Most owners agree; they keep costs down by working long hours and hiring only essential employees.

But a recent state attorney's investigation accuses Ufnal, who manages the Hernando Beach Marina, of competing unfairly by scamming boat owners and not paying taxes.

Ufnal, of 6621 Harbor Drive in Hudson, is charged with four counts of grand theft, two counts of issuing worthless checks and one count each of forgery, theft of Florida sales tax and failure to keep tax records. His wife, Deborah Lee Ufnal, 45, who also runs the marina, is charged with theft of Florida sales tax and failure to keep tax records.

The Ufnals, who would not comment about their cases, are scheduled for separate trials this week.

"I'm confident about his case," said prosecutor Paul Norville. "I don't file a case unless I know it's solid."

The Ufnals' troubles started shortly after they began running the marina in 1996. They are listed as managers and corporate vice presidents. John Ufnal's father and another man, possibly a cousin, own the marina, according to court documents.

Most of the charges stem from three dubious boat-sale cases.

In June 1996, Richard Hadsock and his mother, Mary Hadsock, entered into a written agreement with Ufnal to sell their pontoon boat. The original contract called for John Ufnal to sell the boat for $8,000 at a 10 percent commission. After a couple of weeks, Ufnal convinced the Hadsocks that the boat would sell more quickly if they reduced the price to $5,000.

Another couple of weeks passed, and Ufnal said that the Hadsocks might be better off lowering the price more or doing some repairs such as painting. Richard Hadsock told Ufnal to sell the boat "as is" for $5,000.

In November 1996, Ufnal called and said he had an offer of $3,500. Hadsock said he would agree to the price as long as Ufnal lowered his commission to 5 percent. Ufnal went ahead with the sale.

But bank records indicated that the buyer paid $4,500 for the boat, $1,000 more then Ufnal had claimed, the report said.

"To add insult to injury, Ufnal still took at least half of the commission on the $3,500," investigator Glenn Hurst wrote in his report.

In the second case, Ufnal is accused of telling Eugene Dunn that his Sea Pro boat sold for $5,900 when a buyer actually paid $6,800. Ufnal forged the buyer's signature on a second contract to induce Dunn to agree to the reduced price, the investigator said.

The third case involves three unrelated boat sales in which Ufnal reportedly withheld a portion of the sale money, didn't pay the owners at all and/or wrote bad checks.

In Syd Simone's case, her husband died while the couple's boat was at the Ufnals' marina for repairs. Simone decide it would be best to sell the boat, which Ufnal did for $8,500 in May 1997.

After the sale, Simone tried several times to contact Ufnal but received numerous excuses from marina employees as to why he wasn't around. When they finally met, Ufnal balked at Simone's insistence on cash or a money order. Ufnal told her that his business checks were good and that it was against the law to write a bad check. Simone finally agreed.

The check bounced.

As did others.

Bank records examined by the investigator showed:

Numerous checks have been returned since the Ufnals took over operation of the marina.

So many worthless checks were issued that the overdraft protection could not cover the balance.

The marina's $10,000 line of credit was used up.

The investigator also spoke with the Ufnals' bookkeeper, Barbara Flickinger. At first, she tried "to cover for the suspects, but she finally admitted that they all knew or should have known that when the checks were issued/uttered that there were insufficient funds in the account," the investigator wrote.

Court documents filed by Ufnal state that Simone was paid back. Simone, like several other victims, did not want to comment for this story until the case was over.

Ufnal also claimed that some of the bounced checks stemmed from a mix-up with the company the marina cashed its checks with. The investigator, however, found that the company Ufnal referred to only financed one brand of motors for the marina and was not a banking business.

The Ufnals are not without some supporters. Before John Ufnal's bail hearing, about a half-dozen business owners and managers wrote him letters of reference. Ufnal, a native of Canada, was eventually released under electronic surveillance.

Ufnal, who has no previous convictions in Florida, could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison if convicted on all charges. His sentence would likely be much shorter.

Many of the victims don't have strong feelings about whether Ufnal goes to jail; they want their money back.

Brooksville lawyer Robert Morris, who represented a man who hired Ufnal to sell his boat, received one of the bad checks. He hopes Ufnal is convicted and that the judge orders restitution.

"That way we might finally get our money," Morris said, frustrated that he still hasn't seen a penny from the $6,500 check. "A check is a check. They should be honored."

Morris will most likely have to wait in line.

The Florida Department of Revenue accuses the Ufnals of intentionally withholding $18,370 in sales taxes. They didn't file sales-and-use tax returns from October 1996 to February 1997 and underreported taxes in five other months, the department said.

The Ufnals also have a history of dissolving businesses and declaring bankruptcy, which could leave people waiting for a long time for their money. John Ufnal faces a grand theft charge in Pasco County in connection with a marina he once operated in Hudson.

Even if the Ufnals hang onto the Hernando Beach Marina, some people wonder how much profit it can generate. It doesn'tsell gas, a major income source for many marinas. Some people suspect the Ufnals didn't have enough cash to pay to fill the gas pumps. Marinas are also becoming more expensive to run as insurance costs rise and environmental regulations become more stringent.

And if other people, after hearing about the trials, make similar claims of unscrupulous sales, the line of victims owed money could grow.

"Right now, we can just hope for a conviction," Morris said. "Then we will go from there."

_ Times staff writers Geoff Dougherty and Amy Schatz contributed to this report.