Ex-lawyer receives probation
By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times,
LARGO -- Repentant and ailing, disbarred Palm Harbor attorney Arthur D. Deckelman, 72, hobbled out of court Friday, rather than to prison.
But only after forking over $50,000 and agreeing to pay $500 a month to repay the $175,000 he swindled from more than a dozen movie company investors in a bogus overseas high-yield investment deal.
It was only his age, his failing health and the promise to begin repaying the money that spared Deckelman prison time, said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley. That and the fact Deckelman committed his crime shortly before the enactment of harsher sentencing guidelines that would surely have earned him up to 30 years in prison, Ley said.
Deckelman's attorney, Sherwood "Flip" Coleman, said Deckelman's doctors have said he has prostate cancer and will not live more than another five years. Should the full amount not be paid back to the investors by the time he dies, a lien will be placed against Deckelman's estate for the remainder.
"I have done a terrible thing," Deckelman said in court Friday.
"I have not only embarrassed the bar, I have hurt the community in which I was very active," he said. "I have hurt my family and the victims.
"There's no going back," he said. "It's done. I just want to say how sorry I am."
Deckelman's disbarment and subsequent arrest came as a shock to many of his legal colleagues and community leaders, some of whom wrote letters on his behalf pleading for leniency.
Deckelman was a former president of the Clearwater Rotary Club, a former board member of the Suncoast Family YMCA and a longtime leader with the Salvation Army. Ley said Deckelman's community activism made his crime "all the more troubling."
Ley said she wrestled with sending him to jail, if only for a short time, to send a message.
"The thing that keeps troubling me so much is that we ask our society to trust lawyers," she said.
Mal Freeman, one of the four principals of New Focus Films, and the man who recruited all of the investors, including two of his brothers, said the lost money damaged his reputation as a financial planner and permanently strained his relationship with his brothers. He had initially hoped Deckelman would be imprisoned.
"I was ready to hang him from the nearest tree, but I have to think about my clients," Freeman said. "You do the best you can do under the circumstances. We took the best alternative available."
Prosecutor Bob Lewis said Deckelman initially took money from the trust of a Canadian client to offset some of his medical expenses. But when the Canadian client died, the money came due.
That's when Deckelman persuaded his fellow principals in New Focus Films to try to grow the $175,000 invested in the company through a high-yield overseas investment.
When that money simply disappeared, Freeman sued Deckelman in Seminole County and complained to the Florida Bar.
Deckelman claimed the money was invested in good faith with two German financiers. He even provided two checks totaling $175,000, one written to Eva Von Zehmen and another to Franz Maeder. That satisfied the Florida Bar, which closed its investigation.
The big break in the case came when Freeman's attorney, Gary Siegel, subpoenaed Deckelman's bank records. What that showed was two identical checks to the ones Deckelman produced, except they were written to the IRS -- to cover what was owed to the Canadian estate -- and to the Arthur Deckelman Trust.
Lewis said Deckelman apparently blanked out the names of where the checks actually went, then wrote in the names of Von Zehmen and Maeder, and then photocopied them.
With the new evidence, the Florida Bar reopened its case and last September, Deckelman signed a conditional guilty plea agreeing to the disbarment and admitting his scheme. In February, he was charged with grand theft.
"His medical situation led him to this point," Coleman said Friday. "It is not an excuse, but if someone is looking for an explanation, that would go a long way toward that."
Coleman said Deckelman suffered a trio of maladies: triple bypass heart surgery, a rapidly progressing degenerative arthritic condition in his back and prostate cancer.
In addition to a requirement to repay the stolen money, Deckelman was placed on 15 years' probation. At Deckelman's request, Ley also agreed to transfer probation jurisdiction to Maryland, where Deckelman plans to move to live with family.
But there are still unanswered questions about the case. In addition to the movie company investors, 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. Prosecutors suggested Deckelman, who was promised a commission for handling the deal, may have been swindled in that deal at the same time he was swindling the movie company investors.
In a lawsuit filed on behalf of all the investors, Deckelman pointed a finger at Joseph Italiano of Palmetto and General Surety Inc. Italiano and three others face criminal charges in Utah over an overseas investment scam in which investors from Idaho and Utah lost $10-million. That case has not yet come to trial.
Italiano's attorney, Jack Fernandez of Tampa, said his client was taken in too.
"This thing has tentacles all the way to Hong Kong," Fernandez said. "It's hard to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are."
Outside the courtroom Friday, Deckelman refused to comment.
"This whole thing is a sad case," Siegel said. "It's a tragedy."
"This has been a pretty lonely fight," Freeman said. "For five years, I have been pursuing the truth. It's an emotional day for me."
He said he doesn't regret that he and the other movie company principals tried to pursue their dream to make a movie, only that Deckelman soured it.
"As long as people dream," Freeman said, "there's opportunity."
- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185.
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