Saturday, April 29, 2006

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson's Campaign Funded by Thousands of Dollars From Overcharging Law Firm's Principals

JACKSONVILLE, FLA--- U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, the senior Senator from Florida, is seeking re-election in 2006. Records reveal Nelson's campaign received thousands of dollars in contributions in the years 2003 through 2005 from the principals of a Jacksonville law firm who admit it overcharged its personal injury clients by $130,000 around the same period.

The law firm in question is FARAH, FARAH & ABBOTT, P.A. (a/k/a The Law Offices of Eddie Farah). According to the firm's web site, it is now known as the Law Offices of Farah & Farah, P.A. The principals in the firm are Eddie Farah and his brother, Charlie ("Chuck") E. Farah.

The Law Offices of Eddie Farah employed Florida attorney Jeffrey R. Hill in 2004 when he discovered it was regularly overcharging its personal injury clients by substantial sums. Hill says, "The firm was often 'padding' costs charged to clients by $300 or more per case and had been doing so for several years. Clients were required to sign settlement statements certifying they agreed with the falsified figures before any portion of their settlement funds would be paid to them. The firm's fee contracts, accounting records and settlement statements clearly document its overcharging practices."

Attorneys admit this law firm overcharged clients by $130,000 in the years 2002 through 2004. John A. Weiss, Esq. of Tallahassee represented Eddie and Chuck Farah, before the Bar. Weiss admitted the firm's overcharges in a Sept. 22, 2005 letter to The Bar stating,

"As an aside, I would advise you that the firm has refunded in excess of $120,000.00 ... to those clients who were inadvertently overcharged for costs. Approximately $10,000.00 remains undisbursed because the firm, and the private investigator it subsequently hired, could not find the individuals."

Hill observes, "That certainly sounds like a lot of money to be 'inadvertently' overcharged. The firm would have to overcharge 400 clients by $300 each to reach $120,000."

Even The Florida Bar's own audit confirmed $130,000 in overcharges and a lack of substantial compliance with Bar rules governing trust accounts in the years 2002 through 2004. Certified Public Accountant and Certified Fraud Examiner James F. Wells prepared the report following his audit of Farah's trust account records and procedures. Wells' Audit Report noted,

"Administrative costs that were not substantiated by documentary evidence were charged on some settlement statements in personal injury cases. These administrative costs were in excess of the documented costs such as copies, faxes and postage. Rule 5-1.2(b)(4) requires documentary support for all disbursements from the trust account. These costs were not authorized by the clients."

In discussing corrective action taken, Wells stated,

"The firm reviewed client files and settlement statements to determine the specific clients that had been charged unsubstantiated administrative costs. Refunds totaling approximately $130,000, including interest, were issued to those clients."

Wells concluded,

"In my opinion, Mr. Farah's trust accounting records and procedures in connection with the documentation of costs paid from trust funds during the period from January 1, 2002 through December 31, 2004 were not in substantial compliance with The Florida Bar's rules governing trust accounts." (Emphasis supplied).

Online records show Nelson's campaign received
$12,500 from Eddie Farah and $2,500 from Chuck Farah in 2005 for a total of $15,000 that year. Eddie Farah apparently also contributed $1,000 to Nelson's campaign in 2003. Records for 2004 and 2006 campaigns show the Farah brothers contributed thousands of dollars more to Federal Democratic candidates John Kerry, Betty Castor, Patrick Leahy, Corrine Brown and Debbie Stabenow.

The source of the funds contributed by the Farahs remains in question.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey R. Hill. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Jailhouse Lawyers: The Story Continues

According to a Mar. 1, 2006 article in the Florida Times-Union, a Federal Court convicted attorney David Fleet in Oct. 2005 of "multiple counts of wire fraud, money laundering and other charges" and U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers sentenced him this week to three years incarceration. The article states that Fleet is to report to prison on May 1, 2006.

Despite Fleet’s criminal conviction and sentencing, as of Apr. 15, 2006 The Florida Bar's online records show Fleet is still a member in good standing of The Florida Bar and licensed to practice law. He is with the law firm Fleet, Spencer, Martin & Kilpatrick, P.A. and the firm's web page states he practices in the areas of criminal defense and business and commercial litigation out of the its Destin office.

Six months after Fleet’s conviction on multiple fraud related offenses against clients and weeks after being sentenced to Federal prison, The Florida Bar continues to allow Fleet’s practice of law and representation of clients.

This is not an isolated case. A Feb. 4, 2006 article in the Miami Herald reports that attorney Samuel I. Burstyn was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison in a money-laundering case and ordered to permanently resign from The Florida Bar. According to the article, he entered a plea agreement back in Sept. 2005 and had already served seven months of his sentence.

The Florida Bar has plainly been well aware of Burstyn's conviction and sentencing according to a Feb. 6, 2006 posting on its web site. As of Mar. 3, 2006, Burstyn had already been incarcerated for seven months, yet The Florida Bar's online records still showed him as being a member in good standing and eligible to practice law.

The Florida Bar finally got around to taking at least some action. As of Mar. 17, 2006, The Florida Bar's online records have been changed to show Burstyn is now an “Other Affiliate” who is not currently eligible to practice law.

What about attorney David Fleet? When will The Florida Bar get around to addressing his status?

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey R. Hill. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Governor Jeb Bush Not-So-Glad After All and Now Says Matter is Not Within His Jurisdiction

Unresponsiveness by Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist's office necessitated calling upon Governor Jeb Bush to look into selective enforcement of Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, at least where politically well-connected law firms are concerned. See previous posts for additional details.

Governor Bush's office initially responded to my concerns by email dated Feb. 22, 2006 from Warren Davis of the Governor's Office of Citizens' Services. Davis stated, "Governor Bush is glad you took the time to share your perspective and asked me to respond on his behalf."

According to Davis, "Governor Bush wants to know how Floridians feel about the many critical issues we face, and promises to keep your ideas in mind as he forms policy for addressing these concerns."

Sadly, that email was followed by a Mar. 3, 2006 email from Rex T. Newman on behalf of Governor Bush's office stating,

"Although the Governor welcomes the opportunity to review your concerns, the Attorney General is a separated elected, cabinet-level position and outside of the jurisdiction of the Governor's Office."

Hmmm. If the matter is not within the jursidiction of The Florida Bar, the City of Jacksonville, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist or Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is responsible?

Is anybody regulating law firm fraud these days? If so, you have to wonder why there hasn't been a referral to the appropriate agency by the officials who have already been notified.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey R. Hill. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Jailhouse Lawyers?

According to a Mar. 1, 2006 article in the Florida Times-Union, a Federal Court convicted attorney David Fleet in Oct. 2005 of "multiple counts of wire fraud, money laundering and other charges" and U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers sentenced him this week to three years incarceration. The article states that Fleet is to report to prison on May 1, 2006.

On Mar. 2, 2006, The Florida Bar's online records show Fleet is still a member in good standing of The Florida Bar and licensed to practice law. He is with the law firm Fleet, Spencer, Martin & Kilpatrick, P.A. and the firm's web page states he practices in the areas of criminal defense and business and commercial litigation out of the its Destin office.

Does this strike anyone beside me as being odd? How can The Florida Bar allow an attorney convicted four months ago of "multiple counts of wire fraud, money laundering and other charges", and scheduled to report for a three year prison sentence, to continue practicing law?

This is not an isolated case. A Feb. 4, 2006 article in the Miami Herald reports that attorney Samuel I. Burstyn was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison in a money-laundering case and ordered to permanently resign from The Florida Bar. According to the article, he entered a plea agreement in Sept. 2005 and has already served seven months of his sentence. The Florida Bar is plainly well aware of Burstyn's conviction and sentencing according to a Feb. 6, 2006 posting on its web site. On Mar. 3, 2006, The Florida Bar's online records still showed Burstyn as being a member in good standing and eligible to practice law.

The Florida Bar's web site, states,

"The Florida Bar has an important role in the regulation of lawyer misconduct. A complaint of unprofessional conduct against a Florida Bar member is a serious matter. The processing and investigation of inquiries and complaints are a basic responsibility of the Bar as mandated by the Florida Supreme Court. The Bar seeks to protect the public from unethical lawyers."

Maybe The Florida Bar is waiting for someone to file formal inquiries or complaints with it as though the criminal convictions are not enough to prompt action. More likely, the lawyers may just be politically well-connected.

In any event, this gives new meaning to the term "jailhouse lawyers".

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey R. Hill. All rights reserved.


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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Gov. Bush Glad for Report of Attorney General Charlie Crist's Selective Enforcement of Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act

Unresponsiveness by Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist's office necessitated calling upon Governor Jeb Bush to look into selective emforcement of Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, at least where politically well-connected law firms are concerned. See previous posts for additional details.

By email dated Jan. 28, 2006, I asked Crist to explain for voters what his office's position is concerning this issue. After almost three weeks with no response from Crist, I sent two Feb. 14, 2006 emails to Governor Bush asking him to help correct a situation harmful to the public interest and more widespread than many imagine. I've still heard nothing from Crist, but that doesn't surprise me.

In drastic contrast to Crist's Office, Governor Bush's office promptly responded to my concerns by email dated Feb. 22, 2006 from Warren Davis from the Governor's Office of Citizens' Services. Davis stated, "Governor Bush is glad you took the time to share your perspective and asked me to respond on his behalf."

Davis suggested, "I encourage you to continue working with the Attorney General's office to resolve your concerns in this regard. As you know, the Attorney General is a state elected official who has administrative authority over his office and those under his supervision."

According to Davis, "Governor Bush wants to know how Floridians feel about the many critical issues we face, and promises to keep your ideas in mind as he forms policy for addressing these concerns."

I responded to Davis by email dated Feb. 22, 2006 explaining,

"Unfortunately, it seems futile to continue working with Attorney General Crist's office to resolve my concerns, I've contacted his office on several occasions over the last year with no results. Pursuing the issues through the media will hopefully prove productive."

"Selective enforcement of Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act when well-connected law firms are involved is gaining increasing attention this election year. By email dated Jan. 28, 2006, I asked Florida Attorney General Crist to explain what his office's position is concerning this issue. So far, no response whatsoever. Seems like we Florida voters deserve better, particularly from a man who aspires to be our next Governor."

"Unresponsiveness by Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist's office is what led me to call upon Governor Bush. to look into the situation. Thank you and the Governor taking the time to consider and respond to my concerns."

I have faith that Governor Bush will stand by his promise to keep my ideas concerning Crist's Selective Enforcement of Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act in mind as he forms policy addressing the critical issues facing Floridians. He's a Bush, after all, and I have yet to be disappointed by him, his brother or father.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey R. Hill. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Solution to The Florida Bar's Inability to Evenhandedly Regulate Lawyer Misconduct

Our system of government demands that the legal profession command the public's full trust and confidence. A recent survey by The Florida Bar's Research, Planning and Evaluation Department revealed 68% of those surveyed say the public does not have confidence in the legal system. See my previous posts for reasons I'm surprised that percentage isn't even higher.

Under the current system, Florida’s attorneys are licensed, supervised and regulated by the Florida Supreme Court through The Florida Bar, which is the delegated administrative arm of the Court. While self-regulation of the profession by The Florida Bar may have been a worthwhile experiment, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it fails to evenhandedly regulate lawyer misconduct. The Florida Bar's failure is a disservice to both the public and the professionally responsible attorneys who suffer by association.

Among the greatest flaws in The Florida Bar's grievance and disciplinary process are inadequate investigation and documentation to support grievance committee decisions. Written records are not usually kept of grievance committee proceedings. The discussions are typically oral and not, routinely, recorded. This fosters cronyism characterized by a lack of meaningful investigations and nod-nod, wink-wink decisions in cases involving well-connected lawyers. Many law firms are political juggernauts that enjoy a unique sheld against consequences for violating The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar.

Is there a solution to The Florida Bar's inability to appropriately regulate lawyer misconduct? It seems incapable of investigating itself. Maybe the current system just cannot be fixed and must instead be changed.

Legislators, public officials and special interest groups have in the past called for the regulation of the legal profession by an entity other than the Supreme Court of Florida. Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) seems the logical entity to take over since it already oversees licensing and regulation of most other professionals including accountants, veterinarians, contractors and about 200 other occupations. The Florida Bar has firmly opposed the proposed change but its arguments in opposition are unconvincing at best.

The DBPR would be a far better watchdog over the legal profession than The Bar and the Supreme Court of Florida. Just take a look at my posts summarizing the Bar's 'investigation' of The Law Offices of Eddie Farah's blatant overcharging practices.

The foxes have guarded the henhouse long enough. It's time to acknowledge the failed experiment of a self-regulating Bar and put a suitable system in place.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey R. Hill. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 03, 2006

I Trust Juries

JACKSONVILLE, FLA---I have faith in the American jury trial system. Lots of cronyism in politics, but juries have a knack for finding the truth. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose by rendering fair verdicts. Sometimes, the wrong verdict is rendered, but statistically the system is an overwhelming success.

No system is going to be perfect. The overhaul needed of The Florida Bar's role in regulating lawyer misconduct is one example. Florida Attorney General and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist's seemingly selective enforcement of Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act is another. See earlier posts in this blog for details concerning these examples.

The availability of trial by jury is one of the beauties of our justice system. It's an honor, although a bit of a pain in the butt, to serve on a jury regardless of the magnitude of the case. The cases are important to the parties involved and that makes them important to the system itself.

I trust juries. Juries are folks like you and me who have no political agendas to attend to in deciding the cases before them. One of my favorite movies is "To Kill a Mockingbird" starring Gregory Peck as lawyer Atticus Finch and a young Robert Duval as Arthur "Boo" Radley. A great film that was way ahead of its time. "The Verdict" starring Paul Newman and wonderful character actor Jack Warden is another -- the names of the characters aren't as engraved in my memory, but I haven't seen that film near as many times as I've seen 'Mockingbird'.

It's a bit like Frank Capra's classic film "It's a Wonderful Life" starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and many other fine actors -- a movie that's really stuck with me over the years. Not a courtroom drama, but one that still resonates for me. The Baileys avoided court because of overwhelming, but well- deserved, support from their community. It's hard to forget George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) running down the snowy streets of Bedford Falls exuberantly shouting "Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!" ;)

Whatcha think? Should I just shut my pie-hole? Lotsa money to be made if attorneys can defraud clients with impunity just by doing business as professional assocations.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey R. Hill. All rights reserved.


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