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Island attorney disbarred over trust account

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of October 2, 2014)

A barrier Island attorney would be prohibited from practicing law for at least five years under a plea deal with the Florida Bar Association, which charged that she misused a trust account containing roughly $25,000 of her clients' money.

Holly Ann Mantle, a partner in the now-dissolved law firm of Mantle & Starr P.A., signed a "Disbarment on Consent" agreement with the Florida Bar on July 28, but the action must be approved by the state Supreme Court.

Carrie Constance Lee, counsel for the Florida Bar, said it could take months for the Supreme Court to rule on the agreement, which also requires Mantle to pay disciplinary fees of $2,768.79, as well as all "reasonable" costs connected to the association's investigation.

Lee described Mantle's violation of the Bar's rules regulating trust accounts as "very serious" and said disbarment for such an infraction was "standard."

Mantle may apply for readmission after her five-year disbarment has expired, but she would be required to retake and pass the Bar exam, Lee said.

The phone number at her former office on Beachland Boulevard has been disconnected and Mantle could not be reached for comment.

Her attorney, L.B. "Buck" Vocelle of Vero Beach, declined to comment. Her former law partner, Tiffany Starr Padgett, did not return a message left at her new office at the island-based law firm of Rossway, Swan, Tierney and Barry.

According to the plea agreement, however, a Florida Bar audit revealed that Mantle – on approximately six occasions between Jan. 1, 2013 and June 30 of this year – transferred from her trust account "in excess of what was due to her for fees" and used the money "to pay personal and business operating expenses."

The agreement states Mantle testified she made the transfers believing she was owed a fee and that she was "not properly overseeing the trust account books," but it does not reveal who filed the complaint that prompted the Florida Bar's investigation.

The contents of the plea deal aren't entirely one-sided, however.

The agreement states Mantle, before the Florida Bar initiated its inquiry, hired a certified public accountant to examine her books and that she "fully reimbursed the shortage in her trust account," ensuring that "no client disbursements were delayed and no clients have complained of losing any funds."

In fact, Vocelle was successful in convincing the Florida Bar to include in the agreement a series of mitigating factors he would have presented, along with supporting evidence, if the matter had gone to a final hearing – factors that likely helped Mantle avoid permanent disbarment.

They were:

- Her lack of any prior disciplinary record.

- Her timely efforts to rectify the consequences of misconduct were made before the Florida Bar informed her of any disciplinary investigation.

- Her full disclosure to the Bar and complete cooperation during its investigation.

- Her "excellent reputation in the legal community for professionalism, ethics and legal ability."

- Her assertion that the shortage in the trust account was not due to intentional misconduct but was caused by "failure to oversee her staff, failure to maintain the trust account books in a proper manner and, in one instance, by mistakenly drawing funds from the trust account rather than, as intended, from the general account."

If the state Supreme Court rejects the "Disbarment on Consent," the agreement becomes void and Mantle's acceptance of its contents cannot be used against her in future proceedings – including any negotiation of a new deal.