Another deposition supports Miami law firm Lewis Tein’s position in its fight to exonerate itself from accusations that it lied about its fee for representing two Miccosukee tribal members who were sued for wrongful death.
Former interim U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis and former federal prosecutor Michael Tein represented the tribe for several years. They also represented Tammy Gwen Billie in the lawsuit stemming from a fatal drunken-driving accident. Her father, Jimmie Bert, was a co-defendant because he owned the uninsured vehicle driven by Billie.
Liliana Bermudez was killed in the head-on collision, and a jury awarded her family $3.2 million in 2009.
When Billie and Bert said they have no money to pay the verdict, the plaintiffs examined how Lewis Tein was paid to represent them.
Miami attorney Ramon M. Rodriguez, who represented the Bermudez family, accused Lewis Tein of lying to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick when the firm said the tribe was not responsible for its fee.
Lewis Tein said it received $2.1 million for representing Billie and Bert, but Rodriguez has put the number closer to $3.1 million.
The Florida Bar, based on articles about Rodriguez’s accusations, said it was monitoring the proceedings before Dresnick
Lewis Tein has said Billie and Bert were required to repay the tribe for their legal fees through their annual distribution. Each member of the tribe gets $160,000 a year from its gambling operations.
Adding more drama, the tribe is suing Lewis Tein, alleging the law firm accepted millions of dollars for work never performed under former chairman Billie Cypress. The lawsuits, in federal and state court, claim Cypress used the wrongful death case to funnel money to the firm.
But a Nov. 1 deposition of vice chairman Jasper Nelson offers strong rebuttal testimony to those claims.
Nelson, in the deposition, said he saw no evidence of fraud committed by Lewis Tein during its representation over a five-year span.
He also said the tribe’s general council voted on whether to extend Billie and Bert a loan to pay for their legal representation in the case.
This sparked a deposition of Bert, who previously signed an affidavit that his legal fees were in essence loans. Bert is not fluent in English.
In the deposition, which took place Nov. 27 and Dec. 3, Bert appears confused about what constitutes a loan. He first denies there was a loan agreement between the tribe and Lewis Tein.
Lewis Tein, in a Dec. 7 pleading, accused the Bermudez family attorneys of trying to confuse Bert through semantics. The money extended to him and his daughter wasn’t specific to Lewis Tein but for legal representation by any firm or lawyer.
“Those lawyers knew or should have know (sic) that Mr. Bert and Ms. Billie did not obtain loans specific to Lewis Tein but were ultimately responsible to pay back the tribe from their future quarterly distributions,” stated the motion filed by attorney Paul Calli, a Carlton Fields partner who is representing Lewis Tein.
But in the second day of the deposition, Bert clarified his answers, saying he was just being truthful when his attorney, Jose M. Herrera of Miami, asked him if the loans were earmarked for Lewis Tein.
“When he asked me the question, when Mr. Herrera asked me the question about the loan, I said ‘no’ because I did not request a loan or assistance to pay the Lewis & Tein (sic) attorney fee specifically,” Bert said.
Rodriguez, in the second day of deposition, also asked: “Mr. Bert, did you ever obtain any loans from the Miccosukee tribe to pay for the legal fees generated by Lewis Tein in their representation of you in the Bermudez case?”
Bert answered, “Yes.”
Rodriguez then asked if Bert ever answered to the contrary. He replied: “I’m not sure. But because it went through general council approval, I didn’t have a separate loan.”
An interpreter translating for Bert said he assumed that because the general council approved his request, it didn’t constitute a traditional loan.
Rodriguez continued to press Bert on the subject.
“He has told you three ways to Sunday, despite your best efforts, that he knew of the financial arrangement,” Calli said. “And that just like Jasper Nelson, the vice chair of this tribe said, it approved these loan payments, those distributions. And you are trying to confuse him with this issue of loans.”
Rodriguez and Herrera did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment by deadline.
With confirmation of the loan, Lewis Tein has moved from being on defense to going on offense.
The firm has asked Dresnick to order Rodriguez’s co-counsel — Andrew A. Harris, an associate at Burlington & Rockenbach in West Palm Beach — to explain why he withdrew from the Bermudez case, saying only that “circumstances have arisen.”
Harris withdrew just hours before Bert’s deposition.
In a year of litigation on this issue, Lewis Tein has asserted the tribe shared information with Bermudez’s attorneys to discredit the firm despite an inherent conflict stemming from the wrongful death lawsuit.
When contacted Tuesday, Calli said he was suspicious of Harris’ withdrawal in an apparent effort to distance himself from the lawyers accusing Lewis Tein.
“I’m troubled by the remarkable level of cooperation between lawyers who seem to share a common goal to defame Lewis Tein but whose clients have such direct, adverse interests,” he said.