CLEARWATER — Homeowners from as far away as Texas and North Carolina crowded a Pinellas County courtroom Monday in support of embattled foreclosure defense attorney Mark Stopa.
Facing possible disbarment for professional misconduct, Stopa also drew support from several lawyers and judges, including one who said Stopa had forced judges to "rethink " the entire foreclosure process.
"He’s had a hand in advancing the law in the area of foreclosure," said Judge Morris Silberman of the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.
Silberman was among those testifying in the penalty phase of the Florida Bar’s case against Stopa, who says he has helped as many as 7,000 homeowners. Based on testimony at a trial in March, Pinellas Circuit Judge Linda Allan found that the Bar had proved five of its six counts against him including some alleging that he nearly cost two clients their homes when he failed to tell them of bank settlement offers.
Soon after Allan’s preliminary findings were released last week, Stopa posted a message on his Facebook page claiming there was a "conspiracy" against him and encouraging his clients to attend Monday’s hearing. More than 30 supporters showed up, including Rebecca Martin of Charlotte, N.C. who said she has successfully challenged foreclosure of her home using free advice from Stopa.
"I never paid him a dime. He had no incentive to help me; he’s just a good person," Martin said while waiting for the hearing to start. She said one of Stopa’s regular clients — who also came Monday — had paid for her hotel stay in Florida using frequent flier points.
K.C. Tuckness said she was able to save her Texas home thanks to precedent-setting appellate victories Stopa had won.
"He’s the only foreclosure defense attorney in the entire nation that’s effective and for the people," she said.
Tuckness and other supporters sat in Allan’s courtroom until Stopa said he planned to call all 30--plus to speak. At that point, the Bar’s lawyers asked Allan to exclude potential witnesses from the room so the testimony of one would not be influenced by the testimony of others.
"There are dozens of people who the Bar does not know who they are and what they are going to say," Bar attorney Katrina Brown told the judge. "How intensely prejudicial this would be to allow all these parties to listen to each other."
Allan, sounding frustrated, wondered "how we’re going to have time for all these folks to speak." Nonetheless, she ordered out everyone who might testify.
"I appreciate your waiting in the hall; we’ll get to you a fast as we can," she said.
But for the next several hours the only testimony came from judges and lawyers, both fans and detractors of Stopa.
Among the critics was Hillsborough Circuit Judge E. Lamar Battles, whom Stopa once tried to have disqualified from hearing a case because the judge allegedly was biased against Stopa’s client, an older Hispanic woman.
Noting that his own wife is "of Spanish descent (and) between 55 and 60," Battles called Stopa "very aggressive, not to be confused with zealous."
"He talks over opposing counsel; he’s very rude to opposing counsel; he’s unprofessional in his interactions" with others, Battles added.
Victor Veschio, who represents banks, said he was sitting on a bench in a court reception area once when Stopa began yelling at him in "a very aggressive manner and tone."
"Then he leaned over and whispered, ‘You are an a--hole and I’m going to crush you," Veschio testified.
But attorney Adam Joseph Knight, who also represents lenders, said his many dealings with Stopa had have been "perfectly fine."
"I think you can be a thorn in the side of lenders but on the good side, not bad," Knight told Stopa, who questioned some of the witnesses himself. "I don’t think your not practicing law would be good for our profession."
Following the penalty hearing, Allan will issue a final report with recommended punishment. The Florida Supreme Court will make the ultimate decision, which could be months away.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate