In a deposition, the Miccosukees’ second in command has testified that a Miami law firm being sued by the tribe committed no wrong in its five-year representation.
The Nov. 1 deposition of vice chairman Jasper Nelson appears to contradict claims made by the tribe in lawsuits that accuse the firm of LewisTein of fleecing it of millions of dollars in fees.
Nelson, in the deposition, said he saw no evidence of fraud committed by Miami attorneys Guy Lewis and Michael Tein during their representation over a five-year span.
He also testified that fees they received for services rendered in a wrongful death lawsuit is the nexus of the litigation that came from approved loans given to tribal members to pay legal fees for representation.
Attorney Paul Calli, a partner at Carlton Fields in Miami representing the firm Lewis Tein in the matter, asserts the Nelson deposition undermines the tribes’ accusations against his clients in the lawsuits filed in the state and federal court.
“Guy Lewis and Mike Tein are good people and two of the most aggressive and successful attorneys in South Florida, if not the country,” Calli said. “The notion that they would engage in misconduct is absurd. They don’t deserve the cowardly, abusive allegations which have been recklessly levied against them.”
Telephone calls and emails seeking comment from attorney Bernardo Roman, the tribe’s current counsel and a major force behind the tribe’s litigation, was not returned.
The Miccosukees have accused its former chairman, Billy Cypress of fleecing the tribe of $26 million to pay for gambling junkets.
A lawsuit filed in Miami federal court accuses the Lewis Tein firm, as well as another former tribal attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, of protecting Cypress while being paid millions of dollars in legal fees.
Two separate malpractice lawsuits have been filed in Miami-Dade Circuit against Lewis Tein and Lehtinen respectively. Lewis and Lehtinen are former U.S. attorneys for the Southern District of Florida, while Tein is a former federal prosecutor.
Roman accused Lewis Tein of a kickback scheme at a hearing in September in the state case, while in an Oct. 15 pleading in federal court, the defense attorneys for Lewis Tein have said the litigation is a “political ploy” by the tribe’s current chairman, Colley Billie, who ousted Cypress by five votes in the December 2009 election.
The lawsuit attempts “to blame the Lewis Tein firm … for internal issues relating to the tribe’s business and legal affairs, including an IRS investigation into the tribe’s finances,” according to a motion filed in the federal case in front of U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke that asks for sanctions against the tribe.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in October that the 600-member tribe must turn over financial records to the Internal Revenue Service, which is seeking to collect tens of millions of dollars in taxes from tribal members who received gambling profits as personal income.
The Miccosukees, though, have been unrelenting in its lawsuits against Cypress and its former attorneys. It refiled a 314-page federal lawsuit on Nov. 9 after Cooke found the initial complaint insufficient.
In the state case, the tribe provided Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez with $10 million in cancelled checks as well as 1099 tax forms to Lewis Tein to counteract the law firm’s accusation that it never received the tax documents.
In the federal case, the tribe has accused Lewis Tein of billing — sometimes at $2,000 per hour — for work never performed and charged “thousands of dollars in luxurious personal trips and outings.”
Devoid of facts
“This complaint is devoid of facts and laden with non-specific claims of fraud and conspiracy. It is a nasty personal attack,” the sanctions motion reads. The motion accuses the tribe of filing the lawsuit in bad faith. It also lists in an exhibit 80 cases that Lewis Tein handled for the tribe or tribal members.
At the root of the state malpractice litigation against Lewis Tein is a wrongful-death case in which a woman was killed in a drunken driving accident by tribal member Tammy Gwen Billie.
Lewis Tein represented Tammy Gwen Billie and Jimmie Bert, her father who owned the uninsured vehicle involved in the crash. Miccosukees claimed in the state court lawsuit that Cypress used the car-crash trial to funnel money to Lewis Tein.
A jury awarded the woman’s family $3.2 million in 2009, but the judgment has yet to be paid.
But Nelson says in the deposition that the general council, comprised of the voting membership of all tribe members, voted to give unlimited loans to Billie and Bert to pay their legal fees in the wrongful death case.
The attorneys for Lewis Tein filed their deposition with the court earlier this month.
Nelson was asked on Nov. 1 in the deposition how Tammy Gwen Billie and Bert paid Lewis Tein for legal representation. He said the tribe approved an unlimited open loan for father and daughter.
Nelson was asked by Calli in the deposition: “Do you have any reason to believe Lewis Tein ever did anything wrong to the Miccosukee tribe?”
Nelson replied: “No.”
Nelson said he disagrees with the tribe’s decision to sue Lewis Tein.
Nelson was also asked by Calli: “As you sit here today, have you any reason to believe that any invoice Lewis Tein ever submitted to the Miccosukee Tribe, whether for its representation of the Tribe, or an individual Tribal member, was not accurate?”
Nelson, again with little explanation replied: “No.”
“Jasper Nelson’s deposition disembowels the tribe’s wild accusations and lawsuits,” Calli said.
The Florida Bar in April said it was monitoring the situation after reading in a news story about Lewis Tein’s explanation in court how they were paid via the loans.
It remains a matter of contention for the family of Liliana Bermudez, the young woman killed in the car accident since Lewis Tein was paid but the judgment remains outstanding. The tribe, based in western Miami-Dade County, claims Cypress diverted $4 million in payments to Lewis Tein.
Attorney Kendall Coffey, another former U.S. Attorney who is with Miami’s Coffey Burlington, represented Lewis Tein with The Bar. He said with Nelson’s deposition, the lawyers’ statements on the loans are now corroborated.
“They have been absolutely backed up on that,” Coffey said. “It’s a regular practice that the tribe advances loans for the benefit of its members and the tribe can be paid back in different ways.”
None of the questions and answers in the deposition pertain to attorney Dexter Lehtinen, who represented the tribe for 10 years. He is named as a co-defendant in the federal court lawsuit against Lewis and Tein and has had a separate state malpractice lawsuit filed against him.
Lehtinen, now a shareholder at Tew Cardenas in Miami, has tapped his colleague at the firm, Bryan West, to represent him. West had no comment, saying the Nelson deposition has no bearing on his client.
The Miccosukees, in the separate state malpractice suit filed in December, claimed Lehtinen gave them faulty advice on federal income tax liability for members of the tribe. He is accused in the federal lawsuit, separate of Lewis Tein, of protecting Cypress by ignoring documents that showed the then-chairman was using tribal funds for gambling.
Calli said in his pleading for sanctions the tribe has given no documents or other discovery over to the defense to support its claims in either the federal or state case. The checks cut to Lewis Tein in the state case were filed directly with the Miami-Dade court.
“Two things are missing from the tribe’s fantastical conspiracy story: one is Martians from outer space delivering the secret conspiracy plans on a flying saucer. The second, as Jasper Nelson affirms, is truth,” Calli said.