This story is both sad and instructive. On the one hand, an attorney who for decades seemed to embody the best of the profession has been caught red handed stealing money that belonged to his clients, many of whom were either poor or elderly. On the other hand, this case shows why Florida probate judges will often require that all estate funds be deposited with a local bank in a “restricted depository account” governed by 2005->Ch0069->Section%20031#0069.031″>F.S. § 69.031. In other words, an attorney’s trust account is no longer deemed “safe enough” by the courts. For example, in Miami-Dade County there is a blanket policy requiring ALL estates to place liquid funds in restricted depository accounts – no exceptions granted.

The following are a few excerpts from the linked-to story:

“Mark Valentine, probate lawyer and counsel to Miami’s civil service board for more than twenty years, was disbarred in late April. In court documents, the Florida Bar Association compared Valentine’s dealings to a “Ponzi scheme” — a scam that uses new investors to pay off earlier investors. The State Attorney’s Office has opened a wide-ranging investigation, according to SAO spokesman Ed Griffith, and one former client’s heirs have sued. More lawsuits are likely.”

“[A]uditor Carlos Ruga began an ‘exhaustive and exhausting’ analysis of Valentine’s finances. Ruga discovered that for years Valentine had been taking the money left by his clients’ husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers — at least two million dollars from at least sixteen estates — and using it to repay funds he had withdrawn from others. Using his firm’s trust account as a conduit, Valentine sometimes took as much as $700,000 at a time from one estate to repay money taken from others, Ruga’s analysis revealed.

Valentine used the funds for, among other things, $55,000 in credit card bills, according to the audit. More than one million dollars remains missing, says Maureen Kennon, attorney for the estate of Louise Dargans-Fleming, one of Valentine’s former clients.

With Ruga’s audit as evidence, the bar association took the unusual measure of asking the state Supreme Court to suspend the lawyer on an emergency basis in October 2005. He was disbarred last month. In an affidavit, Ruga (who declined to comment in detail about the case) seemed flummoxed by the scope of Valentine’s misappropriations. He pointed out the audit had ignored at least 100 other estates and guardianships under Valentine’s supervision. ‘I could go on and on,’ Ruga testified, ‘but I have to stop at some time.'”