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New details emerge in Richard Brown probe

(Week of May 12, 2011)

Vero attorney Richard Brown slipped a request to the drive-in teller at Northern Trust on Beachland Boulevard on March 14 seeking to withdraw $63,830 from a trust account held jointly with his estranged wife, local interior designer Natalie Holtom Brown.

Brown, 44, gave bank workers the required paperwork with his wife’s signature and a cell phone number where they could reach her if they had questions about the transaction, according to the case report.

The employees at Northern Trust immediately became suspicious.

That’s because Natalie Brown earlier told them of her pending divorce and left instructions not to release money from the account without both her and her husband’s signatures. They also worried Brown wanted to move the money into an account only he controlled.

Instead of calling the cell phone number Brown provided, bank employees – who knew Natalie Brown personally – called her office phone and learned her husband did not have her okay to move the money, and that her signature on his paperwork was fake, investigators say.

Meanwhile, the case report says, a woman pretending to be Natalie Brown e-mailed the bank to approve the transfer and provided the same cell phone number Brown gave the bankers earlier if they needed to verify it. She then called the bank, impersonating Natalie Brown, and said she approved the transfer.

Brown never got the money although he and his accomplice tried over the course of three days.

Indian River Sheriff’s Office investigators say they later learned  Brown had asked his former office manager and bookkeeper, Kimberly Granere, who now works at John’s Island Club, to pretend to be Natalie Brown. She flatly turned down her former employer’s request.

Brown’s current girlfriend, Amanda Welch, admitted she impersonated Natalie Brown in an attempt to convince Northern Trust to transfer money from the joint account, Jeff Hamrick, an investigator with the State Attorney’s Office, testified in court Friday.

Brown needed money because his financial problems were mounting, investigators say.

The Northern Trust scene played out, investigators and prosecutors say, after the former Vero Beach lawyer stole nearly $23,000 from one client, $48,000 from another client that was supposed to pay for her medical bills and pocketed $5,000 of a third client’s good faith money on a real estate deal.

On May 2, all those alleged deeds came back around to Brown when he was picked up on an arrest warrant in Stuart at his girlfriend’s home.

Brown now spends his days in the jail where he’s been for the last 11 days. At press time, he remained behind bars on $375,000 bond.

Brown failed Friday to get that bond reduced in St. Lucie County so he could get out of jail. The suits he once wore in court were replaced by the blue-grey jumpsuit of a jail inmate as he stood in front of St. Lucie County Judge Gary Sweet.

Authorities told the judge they opposed reducing Brown’s bail. They said Brown recently bought two one-way tickets, one to Detroit and one to New Hampshire, and they thought he was a risk to flee the country.

The story Brown gave about his travel plans didn’t check out, making matters worse, they said.

Judge Sweet denied Brown’s request.

The former Vero Beach lawyer faces a slew of charges in three counties, including a felony charge of criminal use of personal identification and a second-degree grand theft charge in Indian River County.

Investigators also said Friday in court Welch may testify for the state under the conditions of the immunity prosecutors gave her. 

Even before Brown started pilfering his trust fund, his money problems weren’t new, investigators say.

Brown once had an office in the Regatta Professional Suites, an office condominium, but he turned over the deed to that office in November 2010 to the bank holding the mortgage in lieu of foreclosure.

He’s also charged with writing two bad checks totaling almost $3,300 in November to his landlord for a rental home on the north barrier island.

Indian River County Sheriff’s Office records for his March 23 arrest show Brown was given ample opportunity to clear up the returned checks prior to the matter being forwarded to the State Attorney for prosecution.

The checks were designated for back rent and past due  utilities for a home at 1192 Governors Way in Bermuda Club which Brown  and his wife leased in May 2010, according to public records.

The home was sold by Brown’s former landlord and complainant, Karin Offield of Harbor Springs Mich., in April for $375,000, according to Indian River County Property Appraiser David Nolte’s website.

Brown had moved on to Fort Pierce by the end of 2010, but still had some Vero Beach area clients with tens of thousands of dollars entrusted to him.

That’s where the St. Lucie County charges of grand theft and organized scheme to defraud come into play.

Sebastian resident Nancy Greenwald lost up to $48,000, according to records, when an insurance company paid off a medical claim and Brown, instead of passing on the $48,000 minus his fees to her, on Sept. 30th brought a check for $601.50 to her at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort where she worked.

Despite her efforts to recover the rest of the money to pay her medical bills, Greenwald is still out the money Brown received on her behalf, according to records.

In February, another client, day spa owner Mirta Head of Ft. Pierce lost $5,000 she had put up in good faith regarding a landlord-tenant dispute, according to records which indicate Head had to close her business because Brown didn’t produce the money when needed.

According to court records, Vero Beach businesswoman Veronica Licona filed complaints with both local law enforcement and the Florida Bar, saying that nearly $23,000 owed to her from proceeds of a lawsuit was missing or at least it wasn’t given to her. She owns Dependable Roofing and Better Business Solutions in Vero Beach as well as Anytime Fitness in Fort Pierce.

Licona’s complaint was investigated by Florida Bar Chief Auditor Clark Pearson, a CPA, who was a key witness in the Ira Hatch theft and racketeering trial. Pearson audited Brown’s bank accounts and on April 7, the Florida Supreme Court suspended Brown’s law license until further notice.

The suspension came in response to an April 4 petition filed by the Florida Bar claiming Brown appeared to be misappropriating client money.

The order told Brown to notify his clients and his banks of his suspension immediately, to stop accepting new clients, to stop serving as personal representative, guardian or trustee, and to stop removing money from trust accounts. It basically gave him 30 days to shutter his legal practice and turn over pending cases to other attorneys.

Pearson’s audit revealed Brown withdrew “for his own personal or business purposes” $21,850 from his Interest Only Trust Account (IOTA), draining the account to the point there wasn’t enough money left to pay Licona.

When contacted for comment, Licona said she would let her written complaint stand for itself, but she verified she had not received the entirety of the nearly $23,000 owed her.

Records indicate that, after giving Licona several checks which bounced, Brown eventually transferred about $9,200 into Licona’s bank account from a Capital One account in the name of Edmund Bakon of Leesburg, Va. The connection between Bakon and Brown is unknown.

Pearson found in his audit that State Attorney Bruce Colton’s office had already seized the nearly $8,000 remaining in Brown’s trust account in response to complaints from the three clients who never received money.

Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans, who is prosecuting the case for Colton’s white-collar crime division, said he couldn’t comment on the investigation, but did provide an explanation of the seizure of funds, which he said was rather unusual.

“The State Attorney’s office did obtain a search warrant on Richard L. Brown, Esquire’s trust account.  The execution of this search warrant preserved the remaining funds as evidence and had the effect of freezing the account,” Evans said. 

The Florida Bar has a little less than a month remaining to come back with a request for Brown’s disbarment. Based on a telephone call with a Bar spokesperson Friday, it’s unclear whether Brown notified the Florida Bar of his incarceration on felony charges.

Ft. Pierce defense attorney Michael Ohle of the firm Ohle & Ohle represented Brown at Friday’s bond reduction hearing. It’s unclear whether Ohle was just doing Brown a favor to try to get him out of jail, or whether he’s on the case for the long haul.

Ohle declined Monday to comment on the case at this time. Brown is expected to be transferred to the Indian River County Jail and will face the felony charges from Indian River.

On Friday, a man identifying himself as Brown’s father told Judge Sweet he was willing to put the equity in his home up to help Brown make bail.

Should other former clients of Brown come forward, the list of charges may lengthen in the coming weeks as investigators run down and document the allegations.