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VICTIMS SEND MESSAGES TO JUDGE If Hatch’s sentence is cut short by death, we will not complain

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of August 19, 2010)

Convicted swindler Ira Hatch is having his feet held to the fire for maximum sentencing, but not solely by victims who entrusted down payments to Coastal Escrow.

Hatch’s fellow attorneys are unanimously coming down hard on the now-disbarred lawyer for bilking his clients out of millions.

As is customary before sentencings, the court accepts letters from victims and friends of Hatch, anyone who wants to sway Senior Judge James Midelis’ Aug. 25 decision on what happens next to the former Castaway Cove resident.

Prosecutors have said they would ask Midelis for the maximum 30-year sentence available for the charges in the plea deal, and Hatch would have to serve 85 percent of that, which would be about 26 years. The court normally reduces that by time served — in Hatch’s case 31 months. It means the 62-year-old Hatch would be about 85 upon release.

Thus far, the letters received have been unanimous in urging Judge Midelis to throw the book at Hatch.

“We have not received any letters in support of Hatch,” said Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans.  “We occasionally receive letters from victims who write about “forgiveness” or “give peace a chance.” None of the Hatch victims seem to have those feelings.”

The bulk of the letters received are from attorneys infuriated that Hatch, acting in his role as an attorney,  mishandled one of the legal profession’s most important jobs: management of trust accounts.

One of the first letters came from Vero Beach trial attorney Louis B. “Buck” Vocelle. Vocelle is a victim in the case, out some $26,000 in legal fees owed to him from the Hatch and Doty P.A. trust account. He also represents at least three victims, including former Hatch law partner Kevin Doty. And Vocelle was the person who initially reported Hatch to the Florida Bar in August 2007, setting off a chain of events which eventually led to Hatch’s arrest, trial and conviction.

“I write this letter from the perspective of why Ira Hatch’s victims trusted him; why a lawyer is a lawyer even when that lawyer is not practicing law; and why Mr. Hatch should receive the absolute maximum sentence.”

The fact that Hatch had a law practice, Vocelle asserts, gave Hatch an opportunity to fleece his clients in a way that may not have been afforded someone without such standing in the community.

“Because of Mr. Hatch’s status as a lawyer, he was able to convince Vero Beach’s most respected realtors, including the fourth-generation Schlitt Family, to place their escrow deposits in his escrow company,” Vocelle wrote.

His victims assumed that since Hatch was an attorney, there was some measure of regulation of the trust accounts, which allowed Hatch to steal wantonly, he said.

“I realize that the Court may have a concern that if a 30-year sentence is imposed, Mr. Hatch will ultimately die in prison,” Vocelle wrote. “If it is any consolation to the Court, I am in agreement with those victims whom I represent, who are also my friends and colleagues, that if Mr. Hatch’s sentence is ultimately cut short as the result of premature or untimely death, we will not complain; nor should the Court.”

Another letter came from beachside Vero attorney Bruce Barkett, who specializes in real estate and development law. Barkett wrote on behalf of his firm of Collins, Brown, Caldwell, Barkett and Garavaglia and for the firm’s company, Lawyers Title Agency.

“I urge you to sentence Mr. Hatch to the maximum penalty available under the law. I say this not out of spite or malice against Mr. Hatch. Nor am I motivated by revenge for my personal loss which resulted from Mr. Hatch’s theft,” Barkett wrote.

“Rather, I believe this defendant deserves the maximum penalty because of his complete disregard for the law; his complete disregard for the rules governing our honorable legal profession; his complete and total disregard for the rights of his depositors; and the magnitude of his intentional theft.”

Barkett explained the ripple effect that the $4 million lost after being deposited into the black hole that was Coastal Escrow had on the local economy.

“Not only did Mr. Hatch’s transgressions hurt many people in a direct and monetary way, it hurt the real estate market in our community,” he wrote. “It hurt the real estate industry as a whole; and it hurt the reputation of lawyers everywhere.”

Should a 30-year sentence not be handed down, Barkett asserted, not only the victims but also the public will become even more skeptical that justice is blind.

“I only wish you could sentence him to more than 30 years,” he wrote.

Mark Moss, who lost $100,000 that he’d entrusted to Hatch, also wrote a letter decrying Hatch’s abuse of his position as a lawyer.

“Mr. Hatch is an attorney and knew well what he was doing,” he wrote. “Mr. Hatch is a criminal ... with no remorse. He busily transferred money out of his name, moved assets off his balance sheet and had a pro-bono attorney work for him in an attempt to show no assets.”

Hatch was represented by his daughter’s father-in-law, attorney Greg Eisenmenger of Viera, for free. He petitioned the court — and received — indigent status, meaning court costs associated with his defense were covered by taxpayers.

Moss wrote that his business is in jeopardy and his home is now “heading toward default” due to the serious blow his family took when Hatch absconded with his money.

But he wrote not for himself, but for those victims less fortunate.

“I am lucky. I can and will make this money back. But not so lucky are the many others from which Mr. Hatch took money,” Moss wrote. “Many of them do not have income producing potential and are relying on their missing money to live, pay for a place to reside, pay for food. Mr. Hatch changed their lives, altered their quality of existence.”

Moss goes on to describe the things Hatch spent a good portion of the money on — expensive cars, expensive homes, “and other worthless items,” and to express his distress that Marjorie Hatch is still living a lavish lifestyle.

St. Lucie County Realtor Hoyt C. Murphy lost more than $16,000 when he made clients whole who had deposits with Coastal Escrow when the firm went belly-up on Sept. 4, 2007. But he, too, feels lucky, because Hatch had been courting more than $500,000 in escrow deposits held by the brokerage and Murphy had resisted.

But he feels worse for victims who are unlikely to see any of their money again. “I am honestly torn between whether I feel Mr. Hatch should be given the maximum penalty for this crime or a lighter sentence that would enable him to provide some restitution to his victims over time,” Murphy said.

Victims who do not wish to write letters can attend the sentencing at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 25. The State Attorney’s Office has no idea who or how many people will speak.

“With regard to sentencing, there will not be a list. We’ve notified the victims of their right to address the judge,” said Evans, who prosecuted the case with Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler.

Evans has said previously that he expects the hearing to be contentious, as hundreds of lives were upended by Hatch’s white-collar crimes.

“We have heard all kinds of statements, remarks, accusations in similar sentencing hearings,” said Evans, who handles major economic crimes that often involve a large number of victims.

Family members or former associates of Hatch may wish to testify on his behalf, to petition Judge Midelis for leniency. In this case, there may also be a half-dozen or so other interested individuals who are very familiar with the case and who feel that they didn’t have a say in its outcome.

“Although I have never seen it happen, the jurors may show up and wish to say something,” Evans said.