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Prominent bankruptcy lawyer suspended after fraud chrage

Charles M. Tatelbaum, a nationally prominent bankruptcy lawyer who practiced in the Tampa Bay area for a number of years, has been suspended by his Miami law firm after he was arrested Friday and charged with insurance fraud.

The State Attorney's Office in Collier County has charged Tatelbaum with naming his ex-wife as a co-recipient of health care benefits while he worked at a prior law firm in Naples. The couple was divorced in 1996, but Tatelbaum allegedly listed ex-wife Donna Tatelbaum as his legal spouse on insurance documents in April 1999. Tatelbaum was responsible for providing insurance for his ex-wife under the divorce decree, according to the State Attorney's Office.

Donna Tatelbaum allegedly received $5,061 in health insurance benefits from the arrangement, the State Attorney's Office said. The insurance-fraud charge was brought to light by a woman Tatelbaum married in 1997.

"I do deny the charges," Tatelbaum, 60, said before learning of his suspension.

Tatelbaum joined Shutts & Bowen's bankruptcy/creditors' rights practice last month from Cummings & Lockwood, where he worked since 1998 in its Tampa, Hartford, Conn., and Naples offices. From 1990 to 1998, Tatelbaum practiced at Johnson, Blakely, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns of Clearwater, and before that, at Kass Hodges and Massari of Tampa.

Tatelbaum served as a special examiner in the Southeast Banking Corp. bankruptcy in the early '90s, testified several times before Congress about bankruptcy reform and authored some key changes to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. In a June 1997 opinion piece published by the St. Petersburg Times, Tatelbaum blamed the "spending, savings, payment and moral habits" of Americans under age 50 for the massive increase in personal bankruptcies.

Shutts & Bowen's five-member executive committee met Monday evening and decided to suspend Tatelbaum with pay until the matter is resolved, said Bowman Brown, the committee's chairman.

"Insurance fraud charges are serious charges, and we want to be sure he's the kind of person appropriately associated with our firm," Brown said.

Shutts & Bowen conducted an extensive background check on Tatelbaum, as it does with all lawyers who join the firm, Brown said. The firm checked Tatelbaum's references, as well as criminal and Florida Bar records.

"We found everything to be in order," Brown said. "I don't know what more we could have done."

The Florida Bar has been monitoring Tatelbaum for at least six months.

"It was brought to our attention back in September and we did open a file," said Debra Davis, assistant staff counsel for the Florida Bar's Tampa office.

If convicted of insurance fraud, a third-degree felony, Tatelbaum could face a suspension or disbarment.

Tatelbaum left Cummings & Lockwood last month because of the insurance fraud matter, Lawrence A. Farese, managing partner of the Connecticut-based firm's Naples office, told the Naples News on Saturday. Brown said Tatelbaum had an obligation to disclose the matter to Shutts & Bowen.

Asked whether he was embarrassed about the incident, Brown said: "This isn't the way we would have liked this to turn out, or expected it to turn out."

Before Shutts & Bowen issued the suspension, Tatelbaum's criminal lawyer was hopeful the firm would not take any action.

"I would hope a law firm would believe in due process and the Constitution, and that you're innocent until proven guilty, and that they would stand by him through this process," said Jerry Berry, Tatelbaum's lawyer in Naples.

Berry blamed the criminal charges on Tatelbaum's estranged wife, Jane Dunn. She raised the insurance fraud charges in a letter to BlueCross BlueShield of Florida's investigative unit, which turned the matter over to the state Department of Insurance. Tatelbaum and Dunn were married in May 1997, the Naples News reported.

Efforts to reach Donna Tatelbaum and Jane Dunn were unsuccessful.

_ Times staff writer Scott Barancik contributed to this report.