The Last Temptation of George Petrie

He was supposed to turn up dead. His friend, attorney Robert Roth, was supposed to wrap up his affairs. Now they've ended up mortal enemies.

Roth has weathered some professional storms, too. In 1997 he received two public reprimands from the Florida Bar for ethical misconduct. Although the case file has been sealed by the Florida Supreme Court (an unusual action, according to Bob Olian of the bar's Miami office), the court's ruling as published in the legal journal Southern Reporter reveals that Roth was disciplined for making an improper settlement offer and for being responsible for the creation of a fake document by his office (there was no evidence he created the document). Petrie's brief testimony as a character witness for Roth, which apparently impressed the judge, may have deflected worse punishment, but the Supreme Court judges had harsh words for Roth's behavior. "The misconduct in this case involves selfish motive, a reprehensible circumstance," the judges wrote in their ruling.

Petrie, imputing similar selfish motives to Roth, filed a civil lawsuit this past January 25. The 33-page complaint accuses Roth of acquiring Petrie's possessions and property through fraud (none of the property or money, Petrie says, went to his family), of professional misconduct, assault and battery, and defamation (for allegedly making statements that Petrie had AIDS). The complaint reiterates attorney Joseph Shook's earlier arguments that all legal transfers of property from Petrie to Roth are now invalid because the transfers were in anticipation of an event (Petrie's death) that never happened; also, the complaint asserts, Roth's refusal to return Petrie's property constitutes theft because Roth never intended to (or never did) distribute proceeds to Petrie's family members.

"We're going to vigorously defend this," says Andrew Seiden of Boca Raton, one of Roth's attorneys. "He denies all allegations of wrongdoing. Yes, some of these [property] transfers happened, but there's a very plausible explanation for all of this. It's ludicrous to suggest that Bobby Roth encouraged or told this guy to commit suicide."

The civil suit, brought during the State Attorney's Office investigation of Roth's criminal case, came as yet another professional crisis was concluding. This past November Roth resigned after more than a decade as a federal Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee, an appointed position with the U.S. Department of Justice. The resignation was officially for "personal medical reasons," according to C. David Butler, the U.S. Trustee for the Justice Department's southern regional office in Atlanta. Two sources within the U.S. bankruptcy court system, however, assert that Roth's departure may not have been entirely voluntary, following as it did years of conflict between Roth and his supervisors in the U.S. Trustee's Office.

Counters Seiden: "Bobby Roth is very emphatic that he was not forced to resign."

In 1995 Roth and three other bankruptcy attorneys and an accountant filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against five current or former U.S. trustees and other Department of Justice employees. The suit alleged that the defendants "conducted the affairs of the Office of the United States Trustee through a pattern of racketeering activity" that involved extortion, bribery, and mail fraud. After two years, U.S. District Court Judge Shelby Highsmith dismissed the suit.

Petrie, who remained Roth's friend through all those past skirmishes, says he never felt entitled to judge Roth's conduct and always held his intelligence and legal talent in high regard. He continued to think of Roth as a friend even as he began legal action to recover what he believed Roth owed him. But the gun incident was a turning point: After that, Petrie says, he saw Roth differently. He wanted Roth to pay -- whether with jail time or money or both, he didn't care.

Petrie was fortunate this past September to have re-established contact with a long-time friend who offered to share her two-bedroom apartment with him. It's far from the Grove, in southwest Miami-Dade, surrounded by tall palms, banana, and black olive trees, and Petrie says he's gradually recovering his sanity. He is still taking medication for depression and going to therapy. "For a while I was afraid to leave the house," Petrie admits, sitting at a small glass-topped dining-room table in his new place, the afternoon sun shining through a patio door onto a thick file of legal and financial papers he's looking through. "But I'm doing better now. I went out to the grocery store and the post office. I go to my doctor appointments. I wouldn't have been able to have this conversation a few months ago."

Nevertheless he is still on disability and negotiating a severance package with his employer. He says he doesn't intend to look for another job until his civil lawsuit against Roth is resolved. For now thinking about the future seems too risky. "I lost everything I ever worked for in my life, and I blamed myself. I still do," he observes. "But a friend wouldn't have let me destroy myself.

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