State supreme court disbars lawyer who used money from his trust account to run strip club

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The Florida Supreme Court has disbarred a suspended lawyer who operated a strip club with money from his attorney trust account.

The court disbarred lawyer Brett Hartley last month based on a referee’s Nov. 1 report that found he misappropriated client funds and abruptly abandoned his law practice. The Daytona Beach News-Journal has coverage.

A bar audit found Hartley used his attorney trust account as a business operating account for an adult entertainment business in Jacksonville, Florida, called Flash Dancers.

Hartley had testified that funds for the business were deposited into his trust account because he was unable to find a bank that would allow him to operate a business checking account for an adult nightclub.

Client funds were also used to support Hartley’s drug addiction and pay his expenses, including travel to and from Colorado, the Florida referee had found.

Hartley was suspended in December 2018 for failing to comply with a bar subpoena for trust account records. He failed to notify other clients who had paid retainers before he abandoned his law practice, according to the referee.

One of the clients who apparently lost funds entrusted to Hartley was his father-in-law, the referee said.

Hartley’s father-in-law gave Hartley $255,000 to fund a trust and open a checking account on his behalf. Hartley was to pay disbursements to his father-in-law from the checking account.

Hartley paid two disbursements to his father-in-law, then stopped payment on a third check for $5,000, the referee said. Hartley told his father-in-law that the problem was due to an issue with the Florida Bar, and he would pay the money within a week. Hartley never sent the money.

The father-in-law learned of Hartley’s suspension by checking the Florida Bar’s website, the referee said. Hartley couldn’t be reached at his office number, so the father-in-law called Hartley at a phone number listed in a Facebook post.

Hartley told his father-in-law he no longer had his money because he invested it in real estate, the referee said.

The referee also said Hartley depleted $10,000 from a client that was supposed to be used to pay restitution in a criminal matter and kept more than $26,000 from a client that was supposed to be used to pay rent in a business eviction lawsuit.

He told another client who had paid a $10,000 retainer that they needed to pay him $8,200 in restitution for their daughter’s criminal case, the referee said. There was no order for restitution.

Hartley also stopped responding to inquiries while holding $225,000 for a client who was purchasing a business, the referee said.

The referee’s report said Hartley’s participation in ethics proceedings was “sporadic,” even though every effort was made to accommodate him due to his efforts to address substance abuse.

The disbarment order requires Hartley to reimburse the Florida Bar’s client security fund for for payments made to Hartley’s clients due to his misconduct.

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