Disbarred Fort Myers attorney J. Patrick Buckley pleaded no contest to one count of grand larceny of more than $100,000, four counts of practicing law without a license and one count of scheme to defraud.
Adjudication was withheld until a sentencing hearing scheduled on March 7.
"There's no plea deal between him and the state. So we're stepping past the trial and going straight to a sentencing hearing with the judge," said Buckley's court-appointed attorney Christopher Whitney.
Whitney described the hearing this way: "The judge says tell me why I should or should not put him in prison for 30 years."
Typically in Lee County sentences runs concurrently, Whitney said, so it's unlikely Buckley would face the maximum of 55 years for the crimes. "But 30 years in prison is still a long time," he said.
Buckley’s troubles began in 2014 when $286,093.98 was transferred to a trust account he controlled. Lawyers hold trust fund money in connection with their representation of a client, the Florida Bar rules state. It’s not money to be used by the attorney for any of his expenses. In this case the money was from the sale of a house in a divorce case.
In September 2014 the opposing attorney in the divorce case attempted to get an accounting of the trust funds. When Buckley didn’t hand over the records, a judge ordered him to appear in court and he was found in contempt. The next day, Oct. 30, 2014 Buckley wired the money to the opposing attorney’s account.
In the meantime, the Florida Bar received a complaint about Buckley. It issued a subpoena for his bank records and found that the day before his court-ordered appearance, the account was $42,265.25 short.
The day he appeared in court, Buckley deposited a $100,000 insurance payment check into the trust account for another client. The Bar asserts Buckley used a portion of the insurance money to make up for the shortage of the money from the house sale.
Buckley didn’t respond to the Bar’s correspondence or orders. So on Dec. 30, 2014 the Bar filed a petition for emergency suspension, stating Buckley “has caused, or is likely to cause, immediate and serious harm to clients and/or the public and that immediate action must be taken for protection of the respondent’s clients and the public.”
On Jan. 5, 2015 the Supreme Court of Florida suspended Buckley from practicing law, giving him 30 days to stop representing clients.
On May 7, 2015, Buckley was arrested and charged with grand larceny and fraud by swindling, two first degree felonies.
But he didn't stop practicing law.
While in court on Oct. 7, 2015, at a hearing about his fraud and larceny charges, Buckley was arrested again. He was charged with one count of scheme to defraud and four counts of practicing law without a license. The bond was set at $25,000 and Buckley remained in jail for nearly four months.
A trial on both cases was scheduled for Monday. Buckley pleaded no contest to six of the charges.
One count of fraud was merged into the grand larceny charge. Buckley will remain free on bail until March 7.
Buckley, 48, was admitted to the bar in 2001 after graduating from the University of Miami School of Law, according to his bar profile. His suspension and subsequent permanent disbarment in 2015 were the only items in his Florida Bar disciplinary history. Buckley was a gun rights advocate and had gained a reputation as a "firearms attorney" and an expert in federal and state gun laws.
The fact that Buckley was a lawyer may work against him at sentencing. "It's always unfortunate when a lawyer represents someone who used to be one of their own," said Whitney, a former public defender. "And unfortunately that gives the prosecutors something to hammer home a little more."
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'No contest' J. Patrick Buckley says to theft and fraud