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A convicted and imprisoned child molester is suing two Savannah, Ga., lawyers for allegedly mishandling the sale of his business and then fabricating documents to cover their mistakes. The Chatham State Court suit accuses attorneys Russell M. Stookey and Ronald H. Cohen of fraud and malpractice in connection with the 1995 transaction. The suit also names the firm that Cohen later joined, Hunter, MacLean, Exley & Dunn, as a defendant, claiming that the firm assumed Cohen’s liabilities, including the legal malpractice claim. Harold E. Willett Jr., who is serving a 10-year sentence at Scott State Prison, claims that Stookey and Cohen neglected to use the real and personal property assets of Willett Construction Co. to collateralize a guaranty of payment from the purchaser and failed to file papers on the transaction. Their negligence, he claims, left him on the hook for nearly $200,000 in losses to the company. Willett also claims that the two lawyers conspired to create fraudulent documents to protect themselves, including a backdated letter and false affidavits. Willett v. Hunter, MacLean, Exley & Dunn, No. I001855G (Chatham St. filed Sept. 13, 2000). Willett points to one letter in particular — a May 20, 1995, letter allegedly written to him in prison by Stookey. Stookey’s letter refers to Willett’s upcoming transfer to a prison facility in Hardwick — nearly a month before prison officials had decided he would go there. Stookey and Cohen, in court pleadings, have denied Willett’s claims. In a transcript of a telephone conversation between the two lawyers and a Willett Construction employee, Stookey is quoted as telling the others that Willett had set up his lawyers “for a civil hit.” One of Stookey’s lawyers, I. Gregory Hodges of Savannah’s Oliver, Maner & Gray, says his client and Cohen followed Willett’s instructions on the sale. If the business deal went sour for Willett, “It’s his own problem and of his own doing,” Hodges says. Hunter MacLean’s lawyer, David R. Smith of Savannah’s Brannen, Searcy & Smith, says the law firm, which merged with Cohen’s solo practice in Oct. 1999, has no liability in this case. That’s because there was no specific agreement between Hunter, MacLean and Cohen that the firm would assume liability for the legal malpractice claim, pending at the time of the merger, Smith says. Cohen’s attorney, R. Clay Ratteree of Savannah’s Ellis, Painter, Ratteree & Bart, says Willett was a “very sophisticated businessman who knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish.” What Willett insisted on doing, Ratterree says, was to sell the business to a confidante without anyone knowing that Willett still retained a security interest in the company. Cohen, he adds, advised Willett of the risks in doing that, but Willett said he didn’t care. Ratterree says while the allegations of the suit are “grim,” they won’t bear out at trial, and Cohen looks forward to clearing his name. Willett’s attorney, Savannah sole practitioner Donald E. Dyches Jr., declines to comment on the case. Willett, an engineer, was convicted in 1995 of two counts each of aggravated sodomy, child molestation and aggravated sexual battery. Since he would not be able to run his business from prison, Willett decided to sell it to a longtime employee of the company, Ralph E. Neely. According to the suit, Willett hired Stookey and Cohen to handle the transaction. In April 1995, Willett and Neely executed a purchase agreement and a note and security agreement by which Willett would finance Neely’s purchase of 100 percent of the stock of the construction company. The corporation guaranteed payment of the $387,343.51 note, the suit says, by executing a guaranty of payment to Willett. The purchase agreement prohibited Neely from pledging any of the assets of the company, which included two pieces of real property and personal property in the form of vehicles and other equipment, to anyone other than an insurance company in order to obtain an indemnity bond. The two lawyers, the suit says, were negligent in failing to collateralize the guaranty of payment with either the real property or the personal property of the corporation, and failing to file documents related to the sale in the courthouse. The suit says the attorneys’ negligence left Neely free to apply for an $80,150 loan in which he pledged the company’s assets on that loan. Stookey knew of the loan, the suit says, and that Neely was violating the purchase agreement but failed to inform Willett. Neely later defaulted on his note to Willett and, according to the suit, disposed of the corporation’s vehicles, furniture and equipment valued at $102,982. Willett foreclosed on the stock of the corporation, but claims that he was required to repay the $80,150 loan (which by that time totaled $91,732) to protect his interest in the company. Willett is seeking damages for the personal property the corporation lost; for Neely’s loan, which he had to repay; for the difference between the value of the company at the time of sale and its value after foreclosure; and for $1 million in punitive damages. He also claims that the lawyers conspired with Beverly Lawhorn, a former Willett Construction employee and the former clerk of Recorder’s Court in Savannah, to concoct a fraudulent defense to head off a malpractice claim. Lawhorn, who pleaded guilty in 1990 and 1998 to theft by taking charges (the latter charge pursued by Neely), supplied the two lawyers with an affidavit that said Willett had insisted that the sale documents not be filed publicly. Willett, Lawhorn said, was afraid that filing the papers would encumber the company from doing business. Willett Construction was trying to secure a $1 million bond, and needed the company’s assets unemcumbered to do so, she said. Stookey, in another affidavit, also said that Willett insisted the papers not be filed, despite the lawyers’ warnings that he was endangering the company by failing to do so. Willett contends both affidavits are false, as well as the letter Stookey claims he sent to him in prison. In the May 20, 1995, letter, Stookey warns Willett that he wasn’t comfortable with letting Neely run the company and that he didn’t agree about not filing the sales documents. Filing the papers, Stookey writes, “gives the world notice of the terms and conditions of the sale and why nothing can be taken from the company or borrowed against its assets. Mr. Cohen is correct when he tells you this should be done for your protection.” Stookey closes the letter by telling Willett to call him with his new address once he had been moved to Hardwick. Willett counters with the affidavit of a state Corrections Department official, who says the decision to send Willett to the Hardwick facility wasn’t made until June 14 of that year. “No one could have known where Mr. Willett would be assigned,” the affidavit says, until at the earliest, June 7, and it was against policy for Corrections employees to release information about where an inmate will go. Nor does Willett’s file contain any request that he be sent to Hardwick, the affidavit says. Hodges says Stookey did not fabricate the letter and will prove that at trial, adding that the lawyer sent Willett correspondence “where Willett told him.” Willett, however, contends that Stookey has a habit of fabricating documents, and has filed an affidavit from a former employee of Stookey’s. In that affidavit, paralegal Greta Garrett Carpenter says she saw Stookey sign a backdated letter to meet the deadline for notice to an insurer of a client’s claim. Michael J. Hannan III of Atlanta’s Love Willingham Peters Gilleland & Monyak, who also represents Stookey, says because his client has not been deposed about Carpenter’s allegation, he can’t discuss it. But Hannan insists that the malpractice and fraud case is defensible on all counts. “The allegations are without merit, but we take them very seriously,” Hannan says. “Mr. Stookey vehemently denies he did anything adverse to the interest of Harold Willett, and we look forward to trying the case.”

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