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Lawyer's ethics trial gets tense on first day

His former client says he coerced her into having sex. He could face disbarment if the judge finds him guilty.

Published March 22, 2006

Bruce R. Young could be disbarred if found guilty of ethical violations.

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Kimberly Vullo, shown testifying Tuesday, says her sexual relationship with lawyer Bruce R. Young was coerced. He has suggested that her allegations arose after he sued her for unpaid legal fees.
Vullo seemed weary during trial. She suffers from a seizure condition and hadn't eaten, her lawyer said.

The first day of testimony in lawyer Bruce R. Young's misconduct trial Tuesday included heated exchanges, warnings from the judge and a dramatic breakdown on the stand by the accuser.

Tarpon Springs resident Kimberly Vullo says Young coerced her into a sexual relationship when she visited his office during her custody battle in January 2000.

Vullo said she went along with the liaison that day - and with other sexual contacts over the next three years - because Young told her she would lose her children if she refused.

"He told me that I would lose custody of my kids, that he would have me locked up," Vullo said.

The Florida Bar doesn't prohibit lawyers from having sex with a client unless it exploits or adversely affects the attorney-client relationship.

"I have always acknowledged there was a sexual relationship with Ms. Vullo," Young said in his opening statement.

As for the allegations of coercion and threats, Young told the judge: "I believe you'll find it's nothing more than a concocted story."

The Palm Harbor attorney could be disbarred if Judge Raul C. Palomino Jr. finds him guilty of the ethical violations alleged by the Bar. Palomino will make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court after Young's trial ends, most likely this week.

Vullo says it was a case of rape. She filed a complaint with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in 2005, two years after the sexual relationship ended. Prosecutors are now reviewing the case.

Young's attorney, John Tuthill, aggressively cross-examined Vullo for about two hours Tuesday. When she couldn't provide details about her allegations, their exchanges became heated.

"You get raped by somebody ... and see if you remember every little detail!" Vullo yelled.

Several times, Palomino had to referee the exchanges between lawyer and witness, telling Vullo to answer questions directly or telling Tuthill that she had already answered as best she could. The judge at one point reminded both that he could hold them in contempt of court.

Vullo later asked to use the restroom. When she returned to the stand, she seemed weary.

"Your honor, I'm going to pass out," she said.

Vullo then laid her head down and closed her eyes. For several awkward seconds, nobody moved. Finally, the judge asked a bailiff to escort Vullo to the restroom. The bailiff returned to say she was ill.

Vullo suffers from a seizure condition and hadn't eaten all day, her attorney said. The judge ended testimony after the episode, though Vullo is expected back on the stand this morning.

Vullo is one of several of Young's former clients, associates and employees who now feud with him.

Last week, the Bar took Young to trial for ethical violations over a dispute with his former law partner, James Slater. However, Palomino dismissed those charges.

Another attorney who once worked with Young, Charles E. Monty, left the office and now represents Vullo. Young described himself and Monty as "blood enemies."

Two other former clients and employees - Cheryl Marengi and Sandra Ceballos - also have accused Young of sexual-related misconduct. Marengi said he suggested she pay off her legal bills with sexual favors.

Marengi and Ceballos filed complaints about Young to the Bar, but they were dismissed.

Marengi, Ceballos and Monty's wife sat in the back row of the courtroom, often whispering and, at one point, snickering during testimony.

"You know, I can clear this courtroom," Palomino said from the bench, glaring at the group.

In letters to the Bar, Young has suggested the Vullo allegations arose after he sued her for unpaid legal fees.

Vullo also admits being close friends with Marengi, who now works for Monty and is represented by him, too.

Young also pointed out that Vullo's accusations have changed over time.

They include accusations that he threatened her with guns, knives and ropes.

Vullo said Young booted her out of his car after she wouldn't perform a sex act after a hearing, forcing her to walk 8 miles to his office.

Tuthill asked Vullo why she didn't tell anyone, including her mother, about the sexual relationship until after her case was over.

"I was humiliated," she said. "I was scared."

[Last modified March 22, 2006, 01:57:08]

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