For two decades, Miami lawyer Lynn Washington crafted a reputation as a staunch advocate for low-income residents and a legal expert in affordable housing.
But now, he’s facing prison time — for looting more than a half million dollars in money aimed at revitalizing Miami’s inner city.
Washington, 55, a former attorney for the Bradenton Housing Authority, recently pleaded guilty to stealing more than $520,000 from New Urban Development, an affiliate of the Urban League of Greater Miami. The charge: first-degree grand theft.
Under the plea deal, Washington must come up with the first restitution payment of $100,000 by Jan. 7. If he cannot make the payment, a Miami-Dade judge will send him to prison for five years.
If Washington, who has voluntarily resigned from the legal profession because of the misconduct, pays back chunks at regular intervals, his prison time will be reduced. If he pays it all back within several months, Miami-Dade prosecutors will allow him to remain under house arrest for two years, with an extra three years of probation.
Washington would also have to complete 1,000 hours of community service.
“He has had, over the past 20 years, one of the best reputations in the community. It was a shock, to say the least, that Lynn was involved in the missing money,” said Miami lawyer H.T. Smith, who is suing Washington on behalf of New Urban Development. “We’re extremely hopeful that Lynn will be in a position to pay the money back.”
Washington, who is representing himself, could not be reached for comment.
The arrest and guilty plea was a stunning close to the legal career of Washington, who was well-known for his work on behalf of the poor in need of housing.
He has also represented local and national developers looking to redevelop blighted parts of South Florida, and he has served as legal counsel for many local nonprofit organizations. Washington also found a niche representing lottery winners.
Washington had served as the president of Legal Services of Greater Miami, and was a founding member of 100 Black Men of America, a well-known local mentoring group for at-risk youths. And he served as a board member for the Family Christian Association of America, and was a member of the Orange Bowl Committee.
He became a lawyer in 1982, working for the Internal Revenue Service and later as a federal prosecutor.
In early 2013, Washington was representing New Urban Development, which receives mostly federal money to help fund real estate projects in the county’s urban core.
Oliver Gross, the head of the organization, did not return repeated calls for comment. The group’s website claims it has some 1,200 affordable housing units under development, “with hundreds more planned for construction or redevelopment in the coming years.”
Last year, the Urban League of Greater Miami and its affiliate touted the opening of a 30-unit townhouse complex dubbed M&M Maison I in Liberty City. The league says it is one of the largest property owners in the Liberty City community, with more than 2,000 units.
In October, the group also celebrated the finish of a long-running $12 million rehabilitation program for the Sugar Hill rental community in Liberty City.
In early 2012, Washington was entrusted with keeping more than $520,000 in a trust account to be disbursed to the organization as needed. But according to its lawsuit, when the organization began asking for the money, Washington stonewalled.
“Over the course of several months, Washington provided confusing and disjointed responses, always promising N.U.D. to provide a better explanation or that payment of the due amount would be made at some future date,” according to the lawsuit.
Washington “ultimately had no real explanation” as to why he could not hand over the money. The lawyer withdrew the money from the trust account “without consent nor authority,” the lawsuit alleged.
Exactly why Washington stole the money, and what he spent it on, remains a mystery. The lawsuit does not detail what project the money was intended for.
New Urban Development filed the lawsuit in September. Prosecutors charged him last month, and Washington quickly pleaded guilty.