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Fight over half of father's estate continues

The man's relatives want a lawyer in the case to be punished beyond a 15-day suspension.

By JOSE CARDENAS, Times Staf Writer
Published January 5, 2008


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Four years ago, St. Petersburg retiree Harry Lieffers Jr. yanked his power of attorney from his daughter in Michigan and gave it to local attorney Alan D. Watson.

Lieffers' two daughters argued their father was incapable of making financial decisions. Watson countered that Lieffers was mentally stable.

Lieffers soon asked Watson to re-write his will. The new will cut out Lieffers' two daughters. Instead, his $1.2-million estate went to another of Watson's clients, real estate agent Gerard Growney, and Growney's girlfriend, Gina Collins, who is Watson's niece.

Lieffers is now dead, and an unusual battle over his estate is moving through probate court. And for his role in the dispute, Watson just finished serving a 15-day suspension from practicing law.

Out of nine counts filed against him by the Florida Bar, Watson pleaded guilty to one: that he had a conflict of interest because he represented Growney on an unrelated matter at the same time he was looking after Lieffers' interests.

Lieffers' family is not satisfied with the discipline.

"We thought this guy would never practice law, and they gave him a 15-day suspension," said Ken Reibel, 52, husband of Jennifer Reibel, 48, one of Lieffers' daughters. "It's just pretty outrageous for everything he did."

But Bar attorney Karen Lopez said, "we have to think about what we can actually prove."

For his part, Watson denies there even was a conflict of interest because Lieffers and Growney knew he represented them both. He said he pleaded guilty because it was the best way to close the complaint.

"The path of least resistance was to plead guilty to that charge and get rid of this whole matter," Watson said Friday.

Watson did not contest the $600,000 from Lieffer's retirement account that went to the daughters and a son in Michigan and Wisconsin.

That leaves another $600,000 still in dispute.

In 2003, Lieffers was a 76-year-old retired insurance lawyer from Michigan worth more than $1-million.

He lived on a waterfront home in St. Petersburg when his second wife of 32 years died. No one disputes that Lieffers had been friends with Growney for years. Watson said he met Growney through his niece, Gina Collins.

After his wife's death, his daughters moved Lieffers from his waterfront home in St. Petersburg to an assisted living facility in Grand Rapids, Mich.

But Lieffers was unhappy in Michigan. So Growney flew up and helped bring him back to St. Petersburg without his daughters' knowledge.

Lieffers moved in with Growney, who took him to see Watson, where his will was changed. Lieffers' daughters claim their father had been diagnosed with dementia.

Though Lieffers complained that his daughters did not visit him at the home in Grand Rapids, the daughters' attorney, Robert Persante, says Lieffers forgot their visits.

Persante adds that Watson, Growney and Collins fueled Lieffers' resentment of his daughters. He also says the trio influenced Lieffers into re-doing his will.

"This is a guy who doesn't remember what he had for lunch," Persante said. "This is happening right around the signing of the will."

Watson points out that Growney and Lieffers had been friends for 16 years. Watson said Collins gave up her interest in the will when she found out about it.

When Lieffers asked him to re-do the will, Watson said, "I requested that he get another attorney."

Still, he ended up dealing with Lieffers for more than 10 hours over two weeks, Watson said, and Lieffers understood what he was doing. Watson maintains he asked Lieffers questions in front of witnesses.

Watson claims the daughters had visited Lieffers only a few times over 20 years, though Persante says the daughters visited as much as relatives usually do when they live out of state.

Lieffers decided to re-write the will "when he had enough frustration of his daughters," Watson said.

Watson points out that the conflict of interest he pleaded guilty to addressed a real estate contract, not the will.

The Florida Bar's consent judgment points out that Watson renewed a contract on behalf of Lieffers to allow Growney to sell Lieffers' home.

Persante disagrees that the conflict of interest involved the contract but not the will.

"The Bar had a conflict for everything including the will," Persante said. "My guess is that Watson and his attorneys had a hand in drafting the summary" of the negotiated judgment.

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes or (727) 445-4224.

[Last modified January 4, 2008, 21:43:53]


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