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INVESTOR SUIT TESTS LIABILITY OF LAWYER

Lou Pearlman's investment scheme snared some of its victims in a most unlikely place: the offices of lawyers they trusted.

Now the question is whether those lawyers bear any responsibility for the loss of their clients' savings. So far no money has been found to repay the more than $300-million Pearlman owes investors or the more than $100-million he owes banks.

The first test case of lawyer liability may be a lawsuit Safety Harbor resident Sarah Robinson filed last month in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court on behalf of her mother, Lillian Robinson, an 83-year-old nursing home resident. Instead of suing the sales agent who sold her mother a savings account with Pearlman's Trans Continental Airlines in Orlando, Sarah Robinson sued the Clearwater lawyer who helped arrange the purchase.

Elder law specialist Linda Chamberlain acknowledges that she recommended agent Charlotte Oliver to Sarah Robinson and that the three of them met in Chamberlain's office to discuss the Trans Continental investment. But the details of that 2004 meeting are disputed. Sarah Robinson said Chamberlain "recommended or permitted the recommendation" that her mother invest more than $250,000, most of her net worth, in a private annuity with Trans Continental. Chamberlain denies that.

Robinson thought Chamberlain would protect her interests, according to Tampa lawyer Robert Savage, who filed the lawsuit. Instead, he said, Chamberlain was negligent, breached her fiduciary duty to Robinson and misrepresented the investment.

Chamberlain referred calls to her lawyer, who defended her actions.

"Linda Chamberlain didn't sell it and didn't recommend it," said Tampa lawyer Dennis Waggoner. "This is an unfortunate situation where somebody has pointed a finger at her inappropriately."

Chamberlain charged Robinson $600 for "assisting with the purchase of a new annuity and reporting this information to Medicaid," according to a letter she wrote. Waggoner said the fee was to create the legal structure of the annuity, not to select the investment. "The investment option was the choice of the Robinsons," he said. In his response to the lawsuit, he said Chamberlain "did not owe a legal duty" to Robinson relating to the investment.

Oliver declined to comment. She and her husband, Robert, ran Golden Security Inc., which was one of the biggest Tampa Bay area sellers of what Trans Continental called an "Employee Investment Savings Account." The high-yielding account was represented as being FDIC-insured but was actually a Ponzi scheme, according to the Florida Office of Financial Regulation.

No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the scheme, but numerous lawsuits have been filed against sales agents, including at least four against the Olivers. Pearlman is in jail awaiting trial on federal charges of bank fraud.

A planning note

At the time the Robinsons made their investment, annuities offered a popular way to qualify for Medicaid while still protecting some assets for heirs. Instead of counting the annuity as an asset, the Medicaid rules considered it an income stream.

Since then Medicaid rules have made annuities much less attractive. Now anyone creating an annuity to qualify for Medicaid must make the state the first beneficiary, allowing it to recoup any benefits paid.

If you have a question about investments or personal finance, write hhuntley@sptimes.com or Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Read more questions and answers at http://blogs.tampabay.com/money.

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