Former lawyer surrenders for 10 year prison term for theft of $1.5 million

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Linda Trischitta

Published June 29, 2016


A former Coconut Creek lawyer began serving a 10-year state prison term Monday for stealing more than a million dollars from property owners who'd lost homes in foreclosure transactions in 11 Florida counties, authorities said.

"There is no excuse for my behavior," said Nicholas Steffens, 37, as he read a statement to Broward Circuit Criminal Court Judge Michael I. Rothschild.

In March, Steffens pleaded no contest to five counts of grand theft as part of his negotiated sentence.

Steffens stole approximately $1.5 million over three years from about 50 people who owned homes in Florida, including in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Assistant State Attorney David Schulson said.

Some victims have yet to file claims or have not yet been located or have died, and next of kin have not been found, he said.

When a foreclosed property was sold, sometimes a portion of those proceeds, called surplus mortgage foreclosure funds, were owed to the former homeowners. Steffens was entrusted to find those persons and pay them what they were due.

"He made absolutely zero effort to locate anyone and stole the surplus money," Schulson said. "The most outrageous thing is he did it all over the state. He disgraced the legal profession."

While in court, Steffens didn't describe where all of the money went.

"I committed these acts alone, to enrich myself and live a false lifestyle," Steffens said.

Some of the illicit funds $200,000 were spent toward his second wedding, according to the prosecutor. Purchases included $16,000 for the venue, $58,000 to a caterer and $10,000 for wedding rings, information Steffens provided the state attorney's office from his bank records and credit card statements, Schulson said.

"He tried to maintain or improve upon his lifestyle," Schulson said. "There is no evidence he was using it to buy drugs or other illegal activities."

A twice-divorced father of an 8-year-old girl, Steffens was living with relatives in Lake Worth before he went to prison. He apologized to the victims, the court, former law colleagues and his family.

Steffens said his troubles began when his first marriage ended.

"Unfortunately I let depression that set in after my first divorce cripple me," he said. "And instead of reaching out for help, I wound up with several Bar complaints. The result of that was decreased earnings and fewer clients."

Steffens told the court, "I believed my only avenue would be to take, although at the time I termed it borrow, from funds I had access to through the surplus trustee program."

Rather than seeking to decrease alimony and child support payments or finding other ways to save money, he said, "I became greedy. This is, without hesitation, the biggest regret of my life."

Steffens said he "manipulated" colleagues who had "no idea of the crimes I was committing. I will forever regret these actions" and "I take full and absolute responsibility for these actions."

Present to hear the judge sentence Steffens to a decade behind bars, 20 years' probation and to make full restitution to victims was Carmen Barbara of Pembroke Pines. She was owed $12,717, according to a court document.

"In the past two or three years, I lost my husband, I lost my house and then I found out that this happened," Barbara said. "That's what I find the most heart wrenching, is that he was taking advantage of people at their worst possible times, when they lost their homes."

Steffens thanked the state attorney's office for allowing him to remain free until his daughter finished her school year, and so that they could spend Father's Day together.

Schulson said Steffens "stepped up to the plate" and "voluntarily provided a list of the victims" that helped the state's investigation.

"People in certain positions because of their political position or because of status in the community, because of a job title they hold, they have a certain higher level of duty to the people in the community, whether they be the general community or specific clients," said Rothschild as he sentenced Steffens. "You violated that trust. You violated those conditions and you stand here today acknowledging those violations, and to that end, I appreciate that."

After the hearing, Steffens was handcuffed, fingerprinted and taken into custody by the Broward Sheriff's Office.

Steffens was once active in county politics and had served as an officer with the Coral Springs/Parkland Democratic Club.

In 2012, he was a candidate for the Broward County school board, District 4, but did not win office. At that time, his civic and political activities included the Broward County Children's Services Board; Parkland Education Advisory Board and Broward County Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.

The Florida Bar said in February that the State Supreme Court granted Steffens' request for a disciplinary revocation of his license, which is equivalent to disbarment.

Schulson said anyone who thinks they may be a victim should call him at 954-831-8056.