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updated: 11/30/2012 12:03 PM

Naperville attorney accused of fraud by ex-partners

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  • After he was accused of defrauding his law firm, Naperville attorney Bill Brestal resigned and demanded his name be taken off the company sign, according to one of his former partners. The firm obliged.

       After he was accused of defrauding his law firm, Naperville attorney Bill Brestal resigned and demanded his name be taken off the company sign, according to one of his former partners. The firm obliged.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Naperville attorney Bill Brestal on his office patio overlooking the Naperville Riverwalk in 2005.

      Naperville attorney Bill Brestal on his office patio overlooking the Naperville Riverwalk in 2005.
    Daily Herald file photo 2005

  • Embattled attorney Bill Brestal has a street named after him in Naperville.

      Embattled attorney Bill Brestal has a street named after him in Naperville.
    Daily Herald file photo 2005

  • Prominent Naperville attorney Bill Brestal was active in civic affairs. Here, he works with children decorating a giraffe -- part of a United Way fundraising effort.

      Prominent Naperville attorney Bill Brestal was active in civic affairs. Here, he works with children decorating a giraffe -- part of a United Way fundraising effort.
    Bev Horne file photo June 2001

 

He's one of Naperville's most prominent attorneys, and one of its most charitable givers. But now Bill Brestal has been accused of fraud.

The 71-year-old zoning lawyer -- who negotiated the bulk of Naperville's landmark developments in a career spanning four decades -- has been hit with a $1 million lawsuit alleging years of financial impropriety at his former law practice.

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The complaint filed this fall in DuPage County court by Brestal's longtime partners at Dommermuth, Brestal, Cobine and West accuses him of pocketing unauthorized bonuses, using company credit cards to gamble and take cruises, and lying to stakeholders about the firm's finances.

In a brief phone interview Thursday, Brestal generally denied the accusations and vowed to countersue. "It's unbelievable," he said, declining further comment.

The rift signals the breakdown of a long-standing partnership that reigned supreme for decades as Naperville evolved from a rural farming community to the state's fifth-largest city.

By Brestal's own estimation a few years ago, he helped landowners and developers gain approval of more than 55,000 acres, or roughly 90 percent of the city. His firm ushered in prominent neighborhood developments such as the Woods of Bailey Hobson, White Eagle and Green Trails. He also was prominently involved in civic activities -- raising funds and support for Edward Hospital, North Central College and the city's vaunted downtown Riverwalk.

Brestal also is known for giving generously to community causes, including the Heritage YMCA Group, Naperville Little League and Special Olympics, and he was a founding member of the DuPage County Youth Program and the Lisle Township Youth Committee.

Attorney Craig Cobine, who partnered with Brestal about 30 years and once considered him a close friend, said it wasn't until the housing market collapsed in 2008 that Brestal's leadership came into question.

That's when the firm -- facing increasing financial stress -- took a closer look at its books only to find it was paying utility bills at Brestal's second home in Florida, according to the lawsuit. Brestal also had maxed out an extended, $100,000 line of company credit, Cobine said.

"He apparently decided the firm was his personal checkbook," Cobine said. "I personally was devastated. I confronted him about it, and about all he could say to me was it appeared he wasn't very good with money."

Further investigation revealed that between 2005 and 2008 Brestal cut himself unauthorized five- and six-figure checks from company accounts, and racked up charges for a Florida country club membership, trips to casinos and multiple family cruises, including one to the Mediterranean, Cobine said. No client funds were compromised, and no criminal charges pursued.

Instead, Cobine said, the firm tried to resolve the situation internally, but Brestal distanced himself and effectively pulled out of the team about four years ago.

Brestal later lost his positions as an officer and shareholder, and finally resigned this year, Cobine said, demanding his name be removed from the firm's practice along the downtown Riverwalk he himself helped build.

The firm -- now known as Dommermuth, Cobine, West, Gensler, Philipchuck, Corrigan and Bernhard -- filed suit in September because Brestal was "unable or unwilling" to correct the situation, Cobine said.

Until then, he said, "We still thought we had a relationship with him."

Cobine estimated losses in the neighborhood of $1 million.

The financial turmoil led to the layoffs of two or three attorneys and support staff; two or three others left on their own while everyone else took pay cuts, Cobine said.

Asked why the firm didn't discover the alleged discrepancies earlier, Cobine said, "Sometimes it's possible to trust too much, and that would be the situation. We all just took his word for things and let him manage. Everybody else was busy taking care of client business, and not taking care of our own business."

The complaint says Brestal made financial records available only to himself and did not hold regular meetings with directors and shareholders.

Kevin Gensler, another attorney at the firm, said stakeholders never looked at seeking criminal charges. The statute of limitations on embezzlement cases is three years in Illinois.

Naperville Mayor George Pradel confirmed Brestal's prominence in Naperville's development. He said the lawsuit doesn't fit his image of Brestal's character.

"He had a lot of integrity, and he had a great outlook for the city," Pradel said. "He's a very, very honest, upright person. I would not picture Bill as someone that would do anything that would be dishonest or not ethical."

Pradel said Brestal had a knack for not only negotiating developments that would truly benefit the community but for persuading others to support worthwhile local causes. It's disappointing, the mayor said, to see that legacy and the law firm now in turmoil.

"If you wanted to get something annexed or done, you went to Brestal's office," Pradel said. "I love them all because they're wonderful, wonderful people. I just hope that this gets resolved quickly because it's something that no firm or company likes to have happen, where there's unrest within."

Pradel said he had no concerns about any business between the city and the firm.

The lawsuit alleging breach of fiduciary duties and fraud is set to go before Judge Bonnie Wheaton in January.

The firm has asked for a default judgment because Brestal did not respond to the allegations within 30 days. But Brestal's attorney, Nickolas Pappas, said earlier this week that he intends to respond.

"It's too early to comment" in detail, he said.

Brestal, who has a street named after him in Naperville, was licensed to practice law in 1968 and remains in good standing with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. There is no record of him ever being disciplined.

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