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Kidnap hoaxer seeking reprieve

Amid more allegations, a woman who faked a carjacking wants house arrest instead of jail.

Less than halfway through her prison sentence, Bonnie Sweeten wants out.

The suburban mother of three, who in May faked her abduction and fled to Disney World with her 9-year-old daughter, will ask a Bucks County judge this week to transfer her to house arrest.

Saddled with nine to 24 months for the widely publicized hoax, Sweeten is contrite and will never transgress again, her lawyer says.

Even so, new allegations about Sweeten keep turning up in public records.

The onetime paralegal is accused of getting her former boss' law license suspended, masquerading as a lawyer, stealing six-figure sums from clients, defrauding a lender, and using forgery and a fake passport to pose as her employer at a mortgage closing, according to documents filed in civil lawsuits and state disciplinary proceedings.

Sweeten, 38, was even listed as a lawyer in the 2008 and 2009 editions of the Philadelphia Bar Association's legal directory.

Lawyers for Sweeten and her accusers have said the FBI is probing allegations of fraud and massive thefts involving Sweeten and the Feasterville law office of attorney Debbie Carlitz, where Sweeten worked.

No federal charges have been filed.

"Ms. Sweeten denies the allegations," her lawyer, Louis Busico, said last week. "She has not been charged with engaging in any of that conduct."

Carlitz, 48, whose Pennsylvania law license had been suspended since 2008, was disbarred Dec. 1 by the state Supreme Court.

Because Carlitz consented to the punishment, the underlying allegations against her were not made public. But her attorney blamed Carlitz's fall largely on misplaced faith in Sweeten, her friend and assistant since 1995.

Lawyer Ellen Brotman said, "Ms. Carlitz has lost more than just money as a result of her trust in Bonnie Sweeten."

Paperwork problems

Sweeten began to undermine Carlitz's law license four years ago, state disciplinary records show.

In 2005, the Supreme Court placed Carlitz on "inactive" status because she was a half-hour short in her required continuing legal-education classes. But Sweeten, Carlitz's office manager, never passed along that order, the board said.

Two years later, the state sent notice that Carlitz's license would be pulled for continuing to practice on inactive status. Sweeten received the notification, but again kept it from Carlitz, forging her signature on the return receipt.

Sweeten then recruited Philadelphia lawyer Jeffrey Solar to handle the disciplinary matter. She never informed Carlitz, and told Solar that Carlitz was unavailable to speak to him.

Solar, who had known both women for years, negotiated a one-year, one-day suspension for Carlitz. He gave the written proposal to Sweeten, who claimed to have run it past Carlitz for her approval.

"Those representations were just a lie," Brotman said. "Bonnie was hiding this from Debbie."

Sweeten ultimately admitted forging Carlitz's signature on a document approving the deal and giving it to Solar. "I did not understand the significance of what I had done, and I did not discuss it with Mr. Solar," Sweeten said in an affidavit submitted to the board.

Solar did not return a call seeking comment.

Carlitz's suspension began in March 2008. But knowing nothing about it, she kept her office open. She closed it later that year - after a fellow lawyer saw the suspension on a state Web site and alerted her.

After learning more about Carlitz's suspension, Brotman filed an appeal in March.

The Supreme Court reversed the suspension Dec. 1. It was the same day that Carlitz agreed to be disbarred, ending the involvement of the high court's disciplinary counsel.

Boss' legal trouble

For Carlitz, the fallout continues in Bucks County Court. At least three former clients and a mortgage company have sued her, alleging they are out five- and six-figure sums to Carlitz and her firm.

Theodore Klein of Warminster accuses Carlitz and her firm of stealing a $100,000 insurance settlement check from an auto accident. Thomas Phillips of Fallsington says he never received a $25,000 injury settlement check. And Larry Kajkowski of Bensalem says he is owed more than $116,000 from an insurance settlement check.

Carlitz's attorney in these civil cases has responded by blaming Sweeten. Lynanne Wescott says Sweeten stole the checks from Carlitz's mail, forged the names of the plaintiffs and Carlitz on the checks, and cashed them.

Sweeten, who is not a defendant in the suits, "forged Ms. Carlitz's name to checks, pension moneys, settlement funds, bank accounts, credit cards, lawyer disciplinary documents . . . and other documents currently under investigation," Wescott alleges.

Sweeten's attorney, Busico, said Carlitz was not blameless.

"Let's assume these things are true," he said. "There is a matter of oversight here. To say that you are unaware for months, if not years, of what has transpired in your own office is disingenuous."

But Wescott said Sweeten "destroyed, falsified, and hid records" to cover her tracks, circumventing safeguards in place at the law office.

Also suing Carlitz is Gelt Financial Corp., which says she defaulted on a $100,000 mortgage loan taken out on her law office in 2006.

Carlitz denies knowledge of the loan, saying Sweeten got it by forging documents.

At the loan closing, Wescott said, Sweeten posed as Carlitz, using a phony driver's license and passport bearing Sweeten's photo and Carlitz's name for identification.

"I've seen photocopies of the license and passport," Wescott said. "They're pretty darn good."

'Indelible impression'

On Wednesday, Busico will ask a judge to release Sweeten from the Bucks County prison, where she has been for three months.

On Aug. 27, calling Sweeten "a calculating, manipulative, coldhearted woman," Bucks County Judge Jeffrey L. Finley ordered her jailed for at least nine months on misdemeanors that frequently result in probation.

In May, Sweeten had dialed 911 and claimed to have been abducted, along with her 9-year-old daughter, by two black men in Lower Bucks County. She then flew with the child to Orlando, using for identification a driver's license lifted from a former coworker who resembled Sweeten.

And while she stands convicted only of identity theft and making false reports, Sweeten's hoax was prompted by her admitted fleecing of a former relative.

Lawyers agreed that Sweeten had fled under pressure to repay $280,000 she had stolen from the retirement account of Victor Biondino, her former husband's 92-year-old grandfather.

Sweeten had told Biondino's family that she took the money to cover six-figure settlement checks owed to two clients of the Carlitz firm. The clients say Sweeten told them she would be acting as their lawyer after Carlitz's license was suspended.

In urging Finley to consider granting house arrest for Sweeten, Busico argues that she deserves more credit for admitting her crimes, expressing remorse, and sparing taxpayers the cost of a trial.

"Ms. Sweeten for the first time in her life has tasted incarceration," Busico's petition says, "and it will no doubt leave an indelible impression upon her, such that she will never again violate the law."