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Lawyer disbarred, two others are disciplined

Diverted mortgage funds led to the disbarment.

By ELENA LESLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published November 21, 2007


The Florida Supreme Court has disciplined three North Pinellas lawyers for infractions ranging from mysteriously diverting mortgage payments to letting educational credentials lapse.

The court recently disbarred Richard Joseph Da Fonte of Clearwater, suspended Doreen Goldbronn of Palm Harbor for 60 days and put Maria Teresa Rodriguez of Safety Harbor on probation for 12 months.

Goldbronn and Scott Tozian, Da Fonte's attorney, declined to comment. Rodriguez did not return calls.

Da Fonte's disbarment came after he was involved in two real estate transactions where money went missing, according to the Bar's investigation.

In the first, he acted as the closing agent for the sale of a single-family residence. But instead of paying off two pre-existing mortgages on the property in accordance with the terms of the agreement, Da Fonte diverted $230,000 to an unknown third party, said Karen Lopez, an attorney with the Florida Bar.

"We don't know where the money went," said Creston Nelson-Morrill, a Bar spokeswoman.

The original mortgage holder filed for foreclosure, and while Attorneys' Title Insurance Fund managed to hold off the bank, the fund lost more than $300,000 as a result of Da Fonte's actions, according to the disbarment on consent signed by Da Fonte.

In the second case, Da Fonte, working as an escrow agent and closing agent, failed to disburse $715,000 earmarked as loan proceeds. The deal didn't close even though the bank and buyer, who had begun making regular loan payments, believed it had.

Once they learned the truth, litigation ensued. In July, a court ordered Da Fonte to pay $254,500 to the bank.

Da Fonte, who was admitted to practice law in 1982, pleaded guilty to violating a number of rules governing the Florida Bar, including "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" and "application of trust funds or property to specific purpose," according to the disbarment on consent.

Goldbronn's misguided - and unlicensed - investment advice caused one of her clients to lose $40,000, according to the Bar.

In 1996, the attorney wrote to 10 of her clients suggesting they invest in R & W Funding, which she thought was a state of Florida-guaranteed investment program involved in environmental cleanup, according to the filed complaint.

Client Ethel Schlenkerman decided to invest $40,000. Though the company was actually a high-risk investment - it was a business that repaired and resold cars - Goldbronn did not investigate it thoroughly or provide her client with a required risk assessment document.

After Schlenkerman made out her check, Goldbronn split the commission on the deal with a licensed stockbroker even though she wasn't licensed herself, the complaint reads.

A few months later, Goldbronn did indeed receive her stockbroker's license and discovered that R & W Funding was not a state-guaranteed investment program. She said she tried to negotiate a return of the $40,000 to her client, but Schlenkerman wanted to keep the funds invested. She lost the money.

Goldbronn, a member of the Bar for 23 years, and Schlenkerman later negotiated a settlement and the attorney let her securities license lapse.

"At a hearing to determine sanctions to be imposed against her, Goldbronn said that her conduct was a one-time negligent occurrence and not a scam or pattern," according to the Bar.

Rodriguez's 12-month probation extends 24 months of probation she already received due to negligence, Nelson-Morrill said.

In her most recent run-in with the Bar, Rodriguez was notified by mail in March 2006 that she had not completed her continuing legal education requirements and was thus a delinquent member.

Rodriguez, who was admitted to practice law in 1999, claimed she didn't receive the letter and that month she represented a client in court. Though the Bar made several attempts to contact her by mail, none were successful, and Rodriguez came into compliance in April only after she was contacted directly.

In determining disciplinary action, a circuit judge noted he was aware of Rodriguez's "pattern of being irresponsible when dealing with Bar issues and of relying on failures of the U.S. Mail system, post office box number confusion and erroneous record address as excuses for not responding to or for not having knowledge of Bar problems."

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.comor 727 445-4167.

[Last modified November 20, 2007, 21:39:22]

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