As drizzling rain coats her Pontiac on the patchy lawn, Helena Roundtree sits at a glass-top table in her rented Miami Gardens ranch house, jabbing the air as she speaks. The 47-year-old condominium security guard and single mother of three is dressed in baggy shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt despite the damp coolness. She reflexively smoothes her reddish hair extensions and smiles broadly, explaining how she unmasked a respected Miami lawyer as the mastermind of a scheme to take millions of dollars from at least seventeen estates that secretaries, teachers, social workers, and others had entrusted to him.
Because of Roundtree, Mark Valentine, probate lawyer and counsel to Miami's civil service board for more than twenty years, was disbarred in late April. In court documents, the Florida Bar Association compared Valentine's dealings to a "Ponzi scheme" a scam that uses new investors to pay off earlier investors. The State Attorney's Office has opened a wide-ranging investigation, according to SAO spokesman Ed Griffith, and one former client's heirs have sued. More lawsuits are likely.
"He misjudged me," Roundtree says. "I don't care if it's the president I would tell his ass off. I'm for what's right."
After initially agreeing to an interview with New Times, Valentine, who faces no criminal charges at this point, canceled shortly before the appointed time and returned no further calls.
Valentine has been practicing law in Miami since the Seventies. The 53-year-old has handled more than 100 probate cases in the past five years alone and, in 2004, built himself a gleaming, two-story, $337,000 office dubbed the Valentine Building on Grand Avenue in Coconut Grove. His $673,000 Mediterranean-style home in Palmetto Bay has a tiled pool out back and lawns evidently manicured by a type-A gardener. Valentine is also believed to own property in Atlanta and the Bahamas, according to court documents filed by the bar association.
Scott Weiss, an attorney who has faced Valentine in court, recalls being surprised to hear about his colleague's new office building. "I wondered where that money came from," he says. Compared to other law fields, probate work is not tremendously lucrative, Weiss adds, and running one's own law office requires a large cash flow. Weiss speculated that Valentine's many expenses may have pushed him to borrow from the estate accounts he handled. "Maybe he just fell too far behind at a point where he couldn't make it up," Weiss says.
In some parts of Miami's black community, Valentine, an active member of 100 Black Men of South Florida, is practically a household name, clients and colleagues say. In the early Eighties, when the attorney began doing estate and guardianship work, African-American clients flocked to him, says Christopher Benjamin, a fellow probate attorney who considers Valentine a mentor. "He was the only [black probate attorney]," Benjamin said on a recent weekday at the county courthouse on Flagler Street downtown.
Valentine came into Roundtree's life in 2001. That's when her close friend Cornelius Carter died of complications from diabetes, leaving $20,000 in savings and three small Liberty City properties to his teenage son, Cornelius II. As the boy's godmother and guardian, Roundtree hired Valentine to manage the estate. At Roundtree's request, Valentine occasionally petitioned the court for money from the estate, usually $500 or $600 at a time, to buy school supplies or Christmas gifts for her godson. Nothing seemed amiss at first.
But then in December 2004, Roundtree discovered there was only $29 in the account. Where were the proceeds from the sale of the three Liberty City properties in 2001 and 2002? When she confronted him, Valentine claimed he hadn't had time to deposit the sales proceeds, Roundtree says. He cut a check for $10,000 and said $20,000 more was forthcoming. Although the Liberty City houses were nothing special, Roundtree knew they were worth closer to $200,000, according to county assessments.
When Roundtree pointed out the discrepancy and made clear she would complain to the bar association, Valentine offered her $20,000. "I'm like, 'Excuse you,'" Roundtree recalls. The offer was too little too late.
So Roundtree called the bar, and last summer, auditor Carlos Ruga began an "exhaustive and exhausting" analysis of Valentine's finances. Ruga discovered that for years Valentine had been taking the money left by his clients' husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers at least two million dollars from at least sixteen estates and using it to repay funds he had withdrawn from others. Using his firm's trust account as a conduit, Valentine sometimes took as much as $700,000 at a time from one estate to repay money taken from others, Ruga's analysis revealed.
Valentine used the funds for, among other things, $55,000 in credit card bills, according to the audit. More than one million dollars remains missing, says Maureen Kennon, attorney for the estate of Louise Dargans-Fleming, one of Valentine's former clients.
With Ruga's audit as evidence, the bar association took the unusual measure of asking the state Supreme Court to suspend the lawyer on an emergency basis in October 2005. He was disbarred last month. In an affidavit, Ruga (who declined to comment in detail about the case) seemed flummoxed by the scope of Valentine's misappropriations. He pointed out the audit had ignored at least 100 other estates and guardianships under Valentine's supervision. "I could go on and on," Ruga testified, "but I have to stop at some time."
Although at least one estate the bar accuses Valentine of looting was relatively large more than one million dollars left by Dargans-Fleming others were worth as little as $30,000 the value of the retirement benefits in the case of Helen Wynn, a state social worker.
Wynn's husband Sidney, an 82-year-old ex-Negro League shortstop, says he never suspected there would be a problem with Valentine. Sitting on the worn artificial turf-lined front steps of his North Miami house recently, Wynn describes Valentine as a straight-forward, no-nonsense attorney. "He seemed real down to earth," Wynn says. Though Wynn had to wait four months, Valentine did eventually transfer his wife's estate to him.
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Dargans-Fleming's heir, a nephew with severe disabilities, may never see the bulk of the estate left to him. The estate's attorney, Kennon, has a simple definition for Valentine's actions. "He stole the money; there's no question about it," she claims. All that remains of the estate is less than $10,000 in stocks, according to Kennon, who sued Valentine on May 10, alleging civil theft.
More lawsuits might be forthcoming. In a court filing, bar association attorneys expressed concern that the association's fund for victims of attorney malfeasance could be exhausted if Valentine can't pay off the potential "substantial claims" against him.
Roundtree says she strives to be a good Christian and is sorry to see anyone, even Valentine, suffer. That won't stop her from filing a lawsuit of her own, though. "You don't treat people that way," she says.