TAMPA, Fla. - Hiring a lawyer may be one of the most important decisions you will ever make, but when an attorney fails to represent their clients' best interest, the fallout can be devastating.
As the I-Team uncovered, a local attorney is now under suspension by the Florida Bar, after bank records show he spent nearly a million dollars of clients' money at casinos, gun stores and fancy restaurants.
“We loved that house. It hurt to leave,” said Janet Crawford.
Janet and her husband Tom hired Tampa attorney James Lee Clark to save their Wesley Chapel home from foreclosure.
“We were getting behind in payments on the house. My husband was sick, he had a heart attack,” said Janet Crawford.
They paid Clark thousands, then followed his advice and signed their deed over to a company owned by Clark's paralegal and former roommate Eric Liebman.
“They all worked together. They seemed like they were a team. And I trusted my lawyer,” said Janet Crawford.
The Crawfords moved out, after they say they were told Liebman would pay them $5,000 and the bank would forgive their loan.
But they say they got nothing.
Liebman quickly leased the house to another of Clark's clients, who made a down payment and made monthly payments for nearly two years, believing they were leasing to own the home.
She filed for bankruptcy to try to keep the bank from taking it, but the bank ended up foreclosing, giving them just days to move out.
The Crawfords didn't know that Clark had been placed on probation by the Florida Bar while he was handling their case for failing to diligently represent other clients.
“I didn't do research. I should have done research,” said Janet Crawford.
“It appears as though Mr. Clark removed over $900,000 of my client's money,” said Morgan & Morgan Attorney L. Reed Bloodworth.
Bloodworth’s clients are now suing Clark, alleging Clark took money the client received from selling two assisted living facilities.
“I don't know if that are any assets left to recover for my clients,” Bloodworth said.
The Florida Bar subpoenaed hundreds of pages of bank records related to that case, which appear to show Clark transferred money from his client's trust accounts into his own bank account.
They show Clark spent more than $518,000 at the Hard Rock Casino, $13,000 at bars and liquor stores, $21,000 at gun stores and $17,000 on meals at a casino steakhouse.
Clark also paid for vacations in the Bahamas, London, Paris and Amsterdam.
“Using other people's money to enjoy himself, it makes me pissed off. I want him disbarred and thrown in jail as well,” said Janet Crawford.
The Florida Supreme Court issued an emergency suspension of Clark's law license, which went into effect last month.
After multiple attempts to locate Clark, we found him working on his BMW at his South Tampa home, which is under foreclosure.
“I can't talk about it. I'm sorry,” Clark told us.
“Hiring an attorney is an important decision, whatever that matter may be. I think clients should look into their attorneys,” said Bloodworth.
Bloodworth says clients should consult the Bar and avoid attorneys who have been in trouble.
The Crawfords agree.
“Get comments from other people. Check it out before you sign on any dotted line,” Janet Crawford said.
“Do the footwork or you could end up like my wife and myself,” said Tom Crawford.