Disbarred lawyer accused of defrauding clients, including murdered children’s fund

A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted a former Independence lawyer for allegedly stealing nearly $650,000 from three clients, including a memorial fund set up in 2007 for two murdered children.

Harley Kent Desselle, 61, of Raytown, was charged in the six-count indictment with wire fraud, bank fraud, bankruptcy fraud and making a false oath in a bankruptcy case, the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City announced.

Desselle, reached by phone late Wednesday afternoon, said he was not aware of the indictment and had no comment.

In one scheme, the indictment alleges that Desselle began managing a foundation and set up a bank account to handle donations to build a playground in memory of Sam and Lindsey Porter. They were murdered by their father, Dan Porter, in 2004, in a case that captured national attention. The children’s bodies weren’t discovered until 2007.

When the foundation was created, the indictment alleges, Desselle told the children’s mother, Tina Porter, that he would handle the account, and he was the only person who could sign the foundation checks. Tina Porter asked Desselle for documents related to the account, the indictment says, 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 returned the funds within a few days after The Star’s story ran, and the playground was built in June 2008.

The indictment also alleges that Desselle referred Tina Porter for counseling provided by his sister. Desselle told Tina Porter the counseling would be free, but she noticed during one session that the counselor had a check ledger for the Sam and Lindsey foundation, the indictment says. The counselor told Tina Porter that she was writing a check to herself to pay for the services. Tina Porter stopped seeing the counselor after that.

Tina Porter said she was thrilled on Wednesday when she learned of the indictment.

“I’m relieved this has come to an end,” she said. “Now everybody in the metropolitan area who held Sam and Lindsey in their hearts can have a little bit of closure. I want to thank the people who stuck with me and wanted to make sure the foundation was secure.”

A second scheme, the indictment says, involved a widow who received $750,000 in life insurance proceeds in 1996 after her husband was killed in a traffic crash. According to the indictment, Desselle invested the money for Nancy Clifton, putting it in his own company and promising her high yields.

Desselle created phony documents to lull Clifton into thinking she was receiving interest payments, the indictment alleges, but the funds actually came from Desselle’s law firm or from money he’d solicited from his own family members. One payment even came from the Sam and Lindsey Porter account, the indictment says.

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

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

Clifton’s case led to an investigation by the Missouri Securities Division. In November 2008, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan issued a consent order requiring Desselle to pay Clifton $560,000.

Clifton told The Star in a 2009 interview that Desselle was a longtime friend of her husband’s, had attended her husband’s funeral and offered to help her with legal matters.

Clifton said in the interview that Desselle should be punished for what he did.

“I just can’t believe that somebody could do all of this,” she said.

The third alleged victim of Desselle’s was a woman whom Desselle represented in a 2008 bankruptcy case.

She could not be reached for comment Wednesday by The Star.

According to the indictment, 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 says, keeping $500 and giving the rest to Desselle.

When Desselle filed the bankruptcy petition, the bankruptcy schedules did not include the $13,000 he received from the woman for the sale of the motorcycle, the indictment says.

Desselle is no longer allowed to practice. The Missouri Supreme Court disbarred him in 2009, finding him guilty of multiple violations of the rules of professional conduct that govern attorneys. The violations included engaging in serious conflicts of interest with clients, failing to safekeep client property and misrepresenting facts to clients.

Porter said she learned a tough lesson from her experience with Desselle.

“Never meet with an attorney by yourself when you’re under stress,” she said. “Always have someone with you, and make sure it’s someone with a clear head so they can be objective. I thought Kent had my best interests at heart, and look what happened.”

The Star’s Tony Rizzo contributed to this report.