TAMPA, Fla. — Cheryl Martin’s leg was amputated in 2022 after her car was hit by an Uber driver that crossed the median close to U.S. 19 and Alderman Road, sending her into a ditch.

She agreed on a settlement for more than $1 million in damages and put more than $700,000 into a trust fund to replace her lost income from no longer being able to work and to pay for ongoing medical expenses. Martin, 59, hoped to also buy a home, “something very small, just for me.”

But earlier this month, Martin was devastated when she received a notice that the nonprofit that administers her trust and some 2,000 others has filed for bankruptcy protection after discovering that $100 million is missing from their accounts. Almost $400,000 is missing from her trust fund.

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“I’ve been crying, crying, crying,” said Martin, speaking from her sister’s home in Reno, Nev.

In its Feb. 9 bankruptcy filing, The Center for Special Needs Trust Administration states that the group’s founder, Leo Govoni, took money from more than 1,500 trust funds through an unsanctioned loan to the Boston Finance Group, a company he owned. The nonprofit plans to pursue his companies as part of its bankruptcy process.

Meanwhile, a Palm Beach County family this week filed a class-action lawsuit against Govoni, his business partners and his companies for running a “decade long predatory scheme” that allowed Govoni and his business partners to drain more than 1,500 trust funds set up for individuals with disabilities and others with complex medical needs.

The lawsuit was brought by Kelli and Todd Chamberlin, who spent nine years fighting in the courts to prove that their son Clark was the victim of medical malpractice after he suffered “catastrophic brain injury” shortly after his birth in 2011.

The damages that the couple won on behalf of their son exceeded $1.5 million, court records show. The money was placed in a special needs trust fund to help pay for the boy’s extensive medical expenses over the next 40 years.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Tampa, does not state how much of the money is missing from Clark’s trust, but it accuses Govoni and his business partners John W. Staunton and Jonathan Golden of “leaving already vulnerable individuals without a means of much needed financial support.”

The center is not named in the lawsuit but is heavily criticized by Chamberlin’s attorneys for its handling of trust funds following the departure of Govoni in 2009. The center waited 22 months before advising trust holders about the loan, which had gone into default in 2017, and has taken “no reasonable action” to sue Boston Finance or its principals, the lawsuit states.

In a statement released in response to the class-action lawsuit, officials from the center said as soon as they learned of the existence of the loan, they began an investigation while also continuing to manage the needs of the trust beneficiaries.

“The current leadership of The Center for Special Needs Trust Administration has at all times acted with the best interest of the center beneficiaries and to the best of their abilities,” the statement reads. “They are deeply troubled by the actions of the companies and people involved.”

But center officials have acknowledged that they will not be able to make payments to beneficiaries who no longer have sufficient funds. It’s unknown how many have been left with zero balances. Bankruptcy documents show that almost 900 trusts were left with balances of less than $500.

Attorneys for the Chamberlins are also suing American Momentum Bank, a Texas-chartered bank where the trust funds were deposited, for approving numerous transfers of trust money to the Boston Finance Group, a company owned by Govoni that also had accounts at Momentum.

“That bank was apparently asleep at the switch despite numerous red flags that any reasonable bank would have acted to address a decade ago,” the lawsuit states.

Officials from the bank said they will comment after they have completed a review of what has been alleged in court documents.

“We can share that the safety and security of all our valued American Momentum Bank clients and their assets are always our top priorities,” the statement reads.

In addition to serving as the center’s president, Govoni, 65, was also on its board of directors. His Boston Finance company shares the same address as a Big Storm Brewing Co. taproom on 49th Street North in Clearwater. Big Storm is owned by Govoni’s son, L.J. Govoni.

A suite housing the elder law center at Stetson University College of Law is named after Govoni and Staunton. University officials said that Govoni last week resigned from the law school’s Board of Overseers.

The lawsuit also names several companies based in Florida, Delaware and Minnesota that it states Govoni, Staunton and Golden controlled including Boston Finance and Boston Asset Management. Staunton and Golden are both attorneys who live in Pinellas County. Staunton co-founded the center with Govoni, state records show.

Govoni and Staunton did not return calls seeking comment. Golden could not be reached for comment.

Eric Koenig, Govoni’s attorney, did not return a call and email seeking comment. He previously said Govoni denies the allegations made by the center in its bankruptcy filing.

Clearwater resident Lorri Snyder, 69, relied on her trust fund to make payments on her car and her car insurance.

Her husband set up the fund before he died so she would have additional income. It should have more than $15,000, but almost $12,000 is now missing, she said.

Snyder, who also receives food stamps, said she was in shock. She has reached out to her insurance company to switch her payments to monthly. But she said it’s going to be a struggle.

“If I live within a budget and not do excessive shopping but just basic needs, I’ll be OK,” she said. “I’d rather live independently than rely on others.”

Trust fund holders who want more information about the status of their accounts can call the center at 1-877-516-1667.

© 2024 Tampa Bay Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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