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Tucked among the mansions of old Palm Springs, where tour buses pass haunts of the rich and famous Hollywood stars of a bygone era, another home could be added — the one belonging to attorney Seymour Lazar. The 78-year-old cigar-smoking retired lawyer, known in the desert resort town east of Los Angeles for his long-standing support of the posh Indian Wells tennis tournaments, has now gained wider attention for a federal indictment last week accusing him of alleged conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice and money laundering. Lazar gained notoriety not for the practice of law but for his role as the ubiquitous plaintiff in dozens of class actions dating back to 1976. Lazar or close family members served as lead plaintiffs in 50 class actions and shareholder suits for Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach. Of the $44 million in attorney fees received by the New York law firm, Lazar is alleged to have received $2.4 million for “secret and illegal kickback payments” at a time when the first firm in the courthouse door usually became lead counsel, according to the government. Lazar won release on $5 million bail after surrendering to authorities on June 23. “I thought I was doing a lot of good, actually,” Lazar told the Riverside Press-Enterprise the day the indictment became public. He vowed he would fight the charges and said of the government, “We think they have a very weak case.” The Milberg Weiss firm split up last year in a dispute between Melvyn Weiss and William Lerach, who left to form the San Diego firm Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins. The New York-based Weiss firm is now known as Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman. The “New York Law Firm” repeatedly cited in Lazar’s indictment is the Milberg Weiss firm, which has been under investigation by federal prosecutors for several years, purportedly stemming from the Lazar transactions. “Although the indictment does not name Milberg Weiss, it unfairly implicates the firm in the wrongdoing alleged against Lazar,” the firm said in a statement. “We are outraged that these allegations have been made against the firm and reject them as baseless.” According to prosecutors, the New York firm “issued false federal income tax forms” to intermediary law firms and lawyers, to make it appear that the payments were for the benefit of the intermediaries, rather than for Lazar. The government alleges that Lazar received payments from class actions including: United Airlines, $250,000; Genentech Inc., $420,000; and six payments totaling $430,000 in a California state suit against restaurant chain Denny’s Corp. During questioning in 1991 by defense lawyers for New Image Technologies about any “fee arrangement” with Milberg Weiss, Lazar denounced the question — without denying it — as an “absolute insult,” according to the government. Lazar’s personal lawyer, Paul Selzer, 64, of Palm Springs, was also named in the indictment as a funnel for alleged kickbacks paid to Lazar for his role in the securities litigation. Neither Selzer nor Lazar responded to phone calls seeking comment. In 2002, as investigators closed in, Lazar is alleged to have ordered his tax accountant to destroy certain documents subpoenaed by the grand jury, resulting in a charge of obstruction of justice against Lazar. He also figured in the fringes of a high-profile case from the past. Lazar reportedly provided $250,000 to bolster efforts to validate what was known as the “Mormon will” of billionaire Howard Hughes in the 1970s, in hopes of a share of attorney fees, according to a 1976 New York Times account. Pamela A. MacLean is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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