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    Disbarred attorney charged with theft

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- Disbarred attorney Arthur D. Deckelman was arrested Thursday and charged with grand theft in connection with a scam that bilked more than a dozen investors in a movie company out of $175,000.

    Deckelman, 71, admitted to the Florida Bar in September that he first embezzled money from a Canadian client's estate to cover his own mounting medical bills. When that client died and the money came due, he convinced his business partners in New Focus Films that they could quickly grow their company assets through a secret, high-yield overseas investment.

    Instead, Deckelman later admitted that he used the movie company's money to repay what he had embezzled from the Canadian estate.

    He nearly got away with it, said an attorney who sued Deckelman on behalf of the investors.

    Movie company director and financial planner Mal Freeman, who had recruited the investors from among his best clients as well as his father and brother, sued Deckelman in Seminole County and complained to the Florida Bar.

    In a deposition, Deckelman said it was simply an investment deal gone bad. In order to back up his claim, he even produced two checks, totaling nearly $175,000, which were made out to two purported Europeans financiers, Eva Von Zehmen and Franz Maeder.

    That satisfied the Florida Bar, which initially closed its investigation.

    Freeman's attorney Gary Siegel feared the lawsuit was similarly doomed.

    "It was one of those cases, we couldn't disprove what he was saying," Siegel said.

    On a lark, Siegel decided to subpoena Deckelman's bank records.

    Siegel said he was on the phone in his office when the records arrived. When saw them, he nearly dropped the receiver in surprise.

    "He's a $3 bill!" Siegel said. "I don't believe this guy did this."

    What the bank records showed were two checks identical to the ones written to Eva Von Zehmen and Franz Maeder, except they were written to the IRS -- to cover what was owed to the Canadian estate -- and to the Arthur Deckelman Trust.

    With that, the Florida Bar re-opened its case on Deckelman, who last September signed a conditional guilty plea agreeing to the disbarment and admitting his scheme.

    But the theft of the $175,000 did not come to the attention of law enforcement until Robert D. Ulmer, a financial investigator with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, read about Deckelman's disbarment in the St. Petersburg Times. Ulmer said he cut the story out of the paper and took it to his boss.

    "This is straight-up theft," Ulmer said he told his boss. "I think we should open up a case on this."

    Court records show that Deckelman also recruited two other groups of investors for the same overseas investment: an Australian foursome lead by a wealthy yachtsman, which lost $800,000, and Herb Brown of Clearwater, the founder of the Checkers drive-through restaurant chain, who lost $200,000.

    Ulmer said he believes Deckelman, who may have been expecting large fees for recruiting the investors, may have been swindled in the overseas investment.

    Ulmer said the bogus checks were the turning point.

    "Everything fell apart from there," Ulmer said. "That was the smoking gun."

    A sworn statement from Ulmer describes the first checks provided to the Florida Bar as "obvious alterations" and forgeries.

    Before the bogus checks involving the movie company money were discovered, Deckelman filed a lawsuit against Joseph Italiano of Palmetto and General Surety Inc. on behalf of the movie investors, the Australians and Herb Brown. Deckelman won a default judgment for the full $1.2-million.

    Ulmer said Deckelman would have known that the $175,000 from the movie investors had not gone to General Surety or Italiano.

    As for the other $1-million -- from the Australian investors and Herb Brown -- Ulmer said he plans to leave that up to the FBI to investigate. One of the Australian investors has met with the FBI, which will not comment on the matter.

    Ulmer believes Deckelman might have started out with the intent to make movies through New Focus Films. But Deckelman's friends said he was hit with heart bypass surgery, knee replacement and a diagnosis of cancer, all without medical insurance.

    Freeman's attorney, Gary Siegel, said he's got little sympathy.

    "He (Deckelman) tries to portray himself as a pitiful character," Siegel said. "He has shown no remorse. A lot of these people who lost money were older people. He took their money and it's always "Woe is me.' "

    Siegel thinks Deckelman ought to do the right thing and repay the movie investors.

    "He needs to make amends," Siegel said. "We believe he has the ability to pay these people back."

    Deckelman was arrested at his home in the Autumn Woods development Thursday morning. He was being held in Pinellas County jail lieu of $100,000 bail late Thursday.

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

    Recent coverage

    A tale of fraud and so much more (February 15, 2001)

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