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Ex-lawyer will pay in time and money for defrauding clients

Updated: 2013-11-05T00:17:03Z

By JUDY L. THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

Kent Desselle stole funds from a memorial account for two murdered children, took money for himself in a client’s bankruptcy case and defrauded a widow of hundreds of thousands from her husband’s life insurance proceeds.

For the next three years, he will be paying for those actions in federal prison.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple sentenced the former Jackson County lawyer to 36 months in prison followed by eight years of supervised release. As a condition of release from that probation, Desselle must pay $343,045 restitution to the widow of a lifelong friend whom he had defrauded and $5,749 to the bankruptcy trustee for the U.S. District Court.

The sentencing guidelines for Desselle’s crimes called for 33 to 41 months in prison.

“I’m amazed and intrigued how a professional person can steal from their clients,” Whipple said.

The judge told Desselle he didn’t sentence him to the maximum of 41 months in prison because “I want you to get out and get busy making restitution.”

Whipple ordered Desselle to report to prison by noon on Dec. 18.

“This was a pattern of deceit, a series of fraud schemes that spanned at least eight years by a now-disgraced and disbarred attorney,” Tammy Dickinson, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said in a statement after the hearing. “He abused his position as an officer of the court to take advantage of a grieving widow and to prey upon the memory of murdered children. He abused the legal system in a fraud-tainted bankruptcy filing. The law that he was sworn to serve, but spurned instead, will hold him accountable.”

Desselle, 63, pleaded guilty in federal court in May to one count of bank fraud involving a fund for Sam and Lindsey Porter and one count of bankruptcy fraud in another case. Without pleading guilty, Desselle also admitted that he defrauded a friend’s widow of hundreds of thousands of dollars in an investment scheme.

Desselle was an attorney in private practice when he began managing a foundation named after Sam and Lindsey Porter in 2007 and set up a bank account to handle donations to build a playground in their memory. The children, ages 7 and 8, were shot to death in 2004 by their father, Dan Porter, in a case that captured national attention. Their bodies weren’t discovered for three years.

A federal grand jury indicted Desselle in April 2012 for allegedly stealing from three clients, including the Porter fund. The six-count indictment alleged wire fraud, bank fraud, bankruptcy fraud and making a false oath in a bankruptcy case. In a plea agreement, Desselle pleaded guilty to two of the six counts and agreed to pay restitution to the widow he defrauded and in the bankruptcy case.

Tina Porter, mother of the murdered children, spoke at Desselle’s hearing on Monday.

“I had full trust in Kent. Full trust,” Porter said. “And then he just changed. He ruined everybody’s trust in the metro area that gave money to the foundation. He crushed me.”

Nancy Clifton told the judge that when Desselle admitted that he had lost much of her husband’s life insurance proceeds that he’d invested for her, “I felt as though my emotional and financial life was ruined.

“I find it unimaginable how Kent Desselle, who was a friend of my husband and family, could affect my life so tragically and defraud myself and others,” Clifton said. “He should be held accountable and receive the maximum penalty and sentencing as allowed by the law.”

Desselle stood before Whipple in a gray coat, dark pants and a patriotic tie bearing a picture of an eagle.

“I still fully intend, regardless of what time I spend in prison, to pay Mrs. Clifton the full amount of her money,” he said. He did not address the other cases.

In the Porter scheme, Desselle set up a foundation for Tina Porter’s children and told her that he would handle the memorial fund account at the Bank of Grain Valley. He was the only person who could sign the foundation checks. Tina Porter asked Desselle for documents related to the account on several occasions, but he refused to produce them.

In October 2007, Desselle wrote a $12,000 check drawn on the foundation’s account and put it in his law firm trust account, according to the indictment. Four days later, he wrote a $7,500 check made out to New Century Investments, a company he owned, and deposited it into his New Century account, the indictment alleges. Tina Porter did not know about either check.

Desselle came under scrutiny in February 2008 when The Kansas City Star reported that he had invested money that had been donated to the Sam and Lindsey Porter Memorial Fund into his own company. When Tina Porter learned of the misappropriations, she ordered Desselle to return the money. He did so within a few days after The Star’s story ran, and the playground was built in June 2008.

A second scheme involved a woman Desselle represented in a 2008 bankruptcy case.

According to prosecutors, Desselle told the woman to sell a motorcycle that she owned and give him the proceeds, which she thought he would place in the law firm’s trust account and use to pay some of her creditors. The woman sold the motorcycle for $13,500, the indictment said, keeping $500 and giving the rest to Desselle.

When Desselle filed the bankruptcy petition, the indictment said, the document did not include the $13,000 he received from the motorcycle sale. The bankruptcy court ordered him to refund the money in 2009, but he kept more than $5,700.

Desselle also acknowledged in his plea agreement that he defrauded Nancy Clifton, who received life insurance proceeds in 1996 after her husband was killed in a traffic accident. According to the indictment, Desselle invested several hundred thousand dollars for Clifton, putting it in his own company and promising her high yields.

Desselle created phony documents to make Clifton think she was receiving interest payments, the indictment alleges, but the funds actually came from Desselle’s law firm or from his own family members. One payment even came from the Sam and Lindsey Porter account.

Though Desselle told Clifton in 2006 and 2007 that her investments were worth more than $600,000, he’d actually lost all of her money years earlier, the indictment says.

When Clifton read The Star’s story in 2008 about Desselle’s handling of the Porter case, she demanded that he liquidate her investments immediately. That’s when Desselle told Clifton that he’d lost all of her investments.

Desselle’s lawyer, F.A. White, argued for a lighter sentence of 33 months Monday, saying his client had a clean criminal history prior to the current cases.

“He was disbarred,” White said. “The public humiliation has already begun for this man.

“He’s 63 years old and going to prison, your honor. To me, that’s substantial punishment.”

To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to jthomas@kcstar.com.

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