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In March, shortly after being appointed inventory attorney for prominent Miami lawyer Louis Robles — who was facing disbarment for allegedly stealing client funds — Thomas Tew arranged a meeting with Robles’ attorneys at the lavish downtown Miami offices of Roy Black, one of Robles’ many lawyers. As Tew tells the story, he wanted to see whether Robles would cooperate with his effort to sort through the case files of the 12,000 clients Robles had abandoned and help him find new lawyers for them. But before Tew even sat down, he recalls, one of Robles’ attorneys, Nicholas Friedman of Boone, N.C., delivered a warning. According to Tew, Friedman said that if Tew didn’t make sure Robles received his contractual share of the millions of dollars in asbestos and other mass tort settlements still owed to his former clients, he would have Tew thrown off the case. Tew was enraged. “F— you,” he yelled at the lawyer. “I won’t be shook down.” With that, he stormed out of the room. Robles, Tew recalls, ran after him to the elevator, apologizing and promising to fire the lawyer who delivered the warning. But Tew brushed him off, vowing to himself never to meet personally with Robles again. Friedman, who no longer represents Robles, declined to comment on the meeting. “They wanted me to rat out the clients,” fumes Tew, a partner at Tew Cardenas Rebak Kellogg Lehman DeMaria Tague Raymond & Levine in Miami who has handled dozens of high-profile receiverships over the past two decades. “[Robles] has no sensitivity to the wreckage he caused. All Louis is worried about is whether Louis is going to get his money.” Robles, 56, a nationally prominent class action and mass torts lawyer known for his work in asbestos litigation, was disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court on May 15. While he didn’t contest the Bar’s disciplinary findings, he did not admit to the allegations. He can reapply to the Bar for admission in five years. Robles’ troubles don’t end there. According to sources who didn’t want to be named, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are actively investigating Robles for possible criminal violations. In May 2001, after quietly investigating Robles for two years, the Florida Bar filed disciplinary charges against him alleging that he misappropriated $800,000 from client trust funds and charged clients excessive costs — in some cases, more than 50 percent of the total settlement. Essentially, the Bar contended that Robles was engaged in a Ponzi scheme, using recent deposits to satisfy obligations to clients incurred in prior periods. But the Supreme Court’s decision to disbar Robles was only the start of what’s shaping up as an extraordinary and acrimonious legal battle over the legacy of the disgraced mass torts lawyers. Tew is locked in a bitter fight with Robles and his team of high-priced lawyers over the fate of $40 million in settlements which Robles’ former clients are expected to eventually receive. Tew contends that Robles charged his former clients massively overstated expenses; he has even tried to intervene in Robles’ recent divorce action to recover assets for the former clients. For their part, Robles and his legal team are accusing Tew of conflict of interest and are trying to get both Tew and Miami-Dade Circuit Chief Judge Joseph P. Farina disqualified from the case. At the same time, Tew is pressing the Florida Bar to levy an unprecedented special assessment on its 70,000 members statewide to raise enough money to compensate Robles’ clients for the losses arising from Robles actions. CREDITORS LINING UP Numerous parties are already lining up to get a piece of the millions in future asbestos settlements which Robles’ clients are expecting to receive. Robles wants to be first in line. But Tew has told him to forget it — that he would make no deal with Robles until Robles’ clients were paid first. Robles’ ex-wife’s divorce attorney, Andrew Leinoff of Coral Gables, Fla., is one of those in the long line of creditors. He says he will explore every avenue to secure the $3.5 million he says Robles owes his ex-wife. Several financial lenders are also Robles creditors. One, Themus, is seeking $3 million Robles allegedly borrowed to finance his asbestos cases, Tew says. Another, Unibank of Whitinsville, Mass., claims it is owed $13,000 in back payments on Robles’ $4 million home mortgage, according to court papers. Yet another lender, Northwestern Capital Corp. in Miami claims that Robles owes $418,000 in back rent on his offices, from which he was evicted. And there are more. Despite various collection lawsuits against Robles, Alan Dimond, a partner at Greenberg Traurig in Miami who is one of Robles’ attorneys, said his client has “substantial assets.” He would not detail those assets, but said Robles has no intention of filing for bankruptcy. He would not say how much Robles is paying in attorney fees to his expensive team of lawyers. In March, Tew unsuccessfully filed a motion to intervene in Robles’ divorce in order to try to seize Robles’ house and assets for his clients. “If it is determined that the Robles’ lifestyle during the marriage was supported by funds misappropriated from Mr. Robles’ clients or from excessive costs, expenses and attorneys’ fees,” Tew said he would petition the court to reduce her alimony or make a claim for the house, according to his motion. But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Judith Kreeger, who is presiding over the divorce action, rejected Tew’s petition. NEVER TALKED TO CLIENTS Last November, in the midst of the then-undisclosed Bar investigation, Robles shut down his Robles Law Center in downtown Miami, laid off his 40 lawyers and staffers, and allegedly abandoned his 12,000 clients across the country. He dumped all his client files and computers in a Miami warehouse and did not inform the clients what had happened, according to Bar investigators. The closure of the firm and subsequent charges against Robles shocked the South Florida legal community, where he long had been considered highly successful. It turned out that the Florida Bar had been quietly investigating Robles since 1999. It did so in response to numerous complaints from Robles clients around the country who said they had gotten settlements far smaller than promised — or no settlement money at all — were charged costs of more than 50 percent of the settlements, and could not get Robles to return their phone calls. Tom Frazier, 64, a resident of Hollywood, Fla., was one of Robles’ asbestos clients. He said the Veterans Health Administration diagnosed him with asbestosis several years ago after he had worked with particle board for decades as a cabinet-maker. Frazier reports that he has difficulty breathing and suffers from a chronic hacking cough. He currently lives in a warehouse where he works as a night watchman to supplement his meager Social Security benefits. Frazier signed on with Robles in 1999. He said he received numerous settlement notices from Robles, which he signed and returned, but has yet to receive a penny. In fact, one of Robles’ assistants told him on the phone once that he would have to pay 60 percent in costs. “I said, what?” he recalls. “We never agreed to that.” Robles, he said, never returned his many calls and instead had an assistant deal with him. In fact, he’s never met or talked to Robles. “I didn’t even know what he looked like until I saw his picture in the newspaper,” Frazier said. But it took many years for Robles’ conduct to catch up with him. He was flying high in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1989, he partnered with Ervin Gonzalez, leased office space on Biscayne Boulevard and got in on the ground floor when workers started suing companies for asbestos poisoning. Like other successful asbestos lawyers, Robles traveled around the country, soliciting clients in labor union vans parked outside factories. Union doctors inside the vans would take X-rays to test workers for asbestos poisoning. If a worker showed signs of the disease, Robles signed them up. For many, that was the last time they saw or spoke to their attorney. Robles eventually recruited more than 7,000 clients nationwide, becoming one of the busiest class action and mass tort lawyers in South Florida. He also handled some high-profile class action cases. He sued residential developer Lennar after Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Dade in 1992, accusing the builder of shoddy construction. And he spearheaded litigation against NationsBank on behalf of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler, who contended that the bank engaged in racially discriminatory lending practices. Lennar ultimately settled with homeowners. Carey-Shuler withdrew her lawsuit. By 1999, Robles had 120 employees. “This was one of the main firms in South Florida for dealing with class action and large injury cases,” said John Ruiz, a Miami class action plaintiff attorney. “They were known for having a stellar reputation and good lawyers.” Robles and his wife, Ruth Ann, and two daughters enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. He bought a $15 million oceanfront mansion in Key Biscayne, a vacation home on 33 acres in Telluride, Colo., and acquired a Corvette, art and antiques. But the asbestos litigation business started bottoming out in the mid-’90s when asbestos manufacturers began declaring bankruptcy as a result of the massive litigation. Congress currently is debating whether to halt litigation against companies linked to asbestos, and instead establish a $108 billion private trust fund to compensate victims. Seeing that the asbestos litigation business was fading, Robles branched out, running an expensive television commercial campaign around the country to attract clients allegedly injured by breast implants, vaccines, and drugs such as Rezulin and fen-phen. He borrowed $2 million from Core Funding Group, a litigation lender based in Toledo, Ohio, to finance his expansion. Then, in 1999, Ruth Ann, Robles’ wife of 17 years, filed for divorce, demanding alimony, half his wealth and $20,000 a month for her attorney in temporary attorney fees. In 2000, Robles suffered another blow when Ervin Gonzalez, the star litigator of the firm, left to join Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables. Gonzalez is not implicated in the case and says he didn’t even know the Bar was investigating Robles at the time he departed. Thomas Tew says Robles was very particular about controlling all records and billing. ‘PERSONAL TRAGEDY’ When Robles shut down his practice in November, Bar officials were worried about the fate of 12,000 former Robles’ clients. They say Robles abandoned the clients and hastily dumped their case files in a warehouse, without first informing the Bar. So they asked the Miami-Dade Circuit Court to appoint an inventory attorney, similar to a receiver, to protect the clients’ interests. The Bar routinely does this when an attorney dies or abandons clients. Last January, Judge Farina appointed Miami forensic accountant Lewis B. Freeman to handle this job. But in February, without giving a reason, Judge Farina replaced him with Thomas Tew. Tew, who has served as court-appointed receiver in previous high-profile scandals including Premium Sales, ESM Government Securities and currently, Slim America, says this is the worst such case he has ever handled because the victims are sick and vulnerable. “None of the other cases had the personal tragedy,” he said. “These clients are people whose children have autism, women with ruptured breast implants, and sick elderly asbestos workers.” Tew clearly has a strong emotional stake in the Robles matter. During an interview with the Daily Business Review, in the presence of fellow lawyers at his firm, Tew covered his face with his hands and started sobbing while discussing Robles’ breast implant clients. He indicated he has a family member who has gone through the same type of medical ordeal. “How could Louis just abandon these people?” he asked. Last week, Tew and his team of investigators at Tew Cardenas delivered a scathing report to Judge Farina on Robles’ finances. It accuses Robles of charging the firm’s asbestos clients $30 million in unreasonable or impermissible costs and $11.6 million in “costs requiring further discovery.” The alleged unreasonable costs include $6.9 million for file storage, $10 million in extraordinary computer expenses and $12 million in a “retroactive investigation cost.” Robles also charged clients $2.2 million for computer set-up fees, $3.5 million for telephone, fax and postage charges, and $5.4 million interest on these costs. These fees were in addition to his 40 percent contingency fee. Beyond these improper costs, Tew reported, Robles’ books show that $13.5 million he received in settlements was never paid out to clients. Tew considers the $12 million retroactive investigation charge his most questionable finding. That line item was hastily added to Robles’ records, with no explanation, in September 2002, “as the Bar was closing in,” he said. He alleges that Robles added this line item to camouflage funds Robles spent and could not account for. “That money is gone,” Tew said. Some Robles clients have said that they were shocked to receive bills from Robles for airfare, food, phone bills and other costs that were never disclosed to them, according to complaints filed with the Bar. Attorney Jeff Tew, Thomas’ brother and partner at Tew Cardenas, expressed amazement over the costs Robles charged his clients. “Just how many costs can you pass on to the customer?” he asked in an interview. “How about if I set up a [photocopying] company and charged a profit on every copy I made for a customer. Do I pass along my rent, my overhead, my phone bill?” American Bar Association rules spell out exactly what a lawyer may pass on to the client in costs. A formal ethics opinion issued by the ABA in 1993 states: “One major contributing factor to the discouraging public opinion of the legal profession appears to be the billing practices of some of its members.” The Tews contend Robles’ cost practices violated the Florida Bar Rules of Professional Conduct, which state that lawyers must clearly explain all costs at the time the client signs a contract. If Judge Farina accepts the findings of the Tew Cardenas report on Robles’ charges, Robles will have to give up his claim to nearly $40 million he says he’s owed in settlements; that money instead would be paid out to his former clients. Robles’ attorneys sharply dispute Tew’s allegations, insisting all of their client’s charges were legitimate. The expensive computer set-up charge, for example, was necessary, they say, because Robles had to create a complex computer infrastructure to deal with 7,000 asbestos clients. “If a client agrees to a charge before signing a contract, then what is the problem?” asked Dimond, a former Florida Bar president who is representing Robles. The $12 million retroactive investigation fee also is legitimate, Dimond argued. When Bar investigators demanded to see Robles’ books, he had to update those records for them, Dimond said. He insisted the money was needed to cover the Robles firm’s investigative costs “for whenever the clients hired him.” The case has turned sharply acrimonious. Tew calls Robles “scum.” For their part, Robles’ attorneys — Dimond, along with William Huggett of the Huggett Law Firm in Miami — have filed motions in Miami-Dade Circuit Court to have both Judge Farina and Tew thrown off the case. They argue the two men are biased against their client. Robles’ attorneys object to the fact that Farina replaced Freeman as the person appointed to inventory the case files and selected “his own attorney,” according to the motion to disqualify Farina and Tew. Robles had wanted to keep Freeman. Robles’ attorneys also object to the fact that Judge Farina decided to hold a hearing on the issue of the costs Robles charged his clients. Freeman told the Review that he still does not know why Farina replaced him. He claims that he’s owed nearly $200,000 for his work on the matter; he has filed suit against Robles to collect. As evidence of Tew’s bias, Robles’ attorneys, in their motion to disqualify Tew, cite newspaper articles quoting Tew as saying he planned to file a legal malpractice lawsuit against Robles and that he would try to block Robles’ efforts to recover fees and costs owed to him. “While Tew apparently wishes to act both as inventory attorney and prosecuting attorney in this matter, whether because of an actual conflict of interest or the mere appearance of impropriety, Tew cannot properly wear both of these hats,” the motion asserts. Robles’ attorneys also allege that Tew has a conflict of interest in that he is seeking to take over some of Robles’ clients, thus placing himself and Robles “in a direct financial conflict.” But under Florida Bar rules, Tew is not conflicted because he wants to take over some of Robles’ clients, says Tony Boggs, director of the Bar’s legal division. An inventory attorney “only has a fiduciary duty to the clients, not to the attorney being inventoried,” he said. And an inventory attorney is allowed to take over the attorney’s cases, if the clients want him to represent them. In a motion filed May 24, Robles’ attorneys ask for a jury trial “on all issues triable in this matter.” The court papers do not outline those issues. Boggs says there is no precedent for a jury trial in an inventory attorney case. “What part of the case would the jury hear?” he asked. Clearly, the key part Robles’ attorneys would like a jury to decide is whether he should have to pay $40 million in settlements to his clients. “We want full due process under the law,” Dimond said. “This is an unusual case. Typically, there is a plaintiff to complain and a defendant. We want adjudication of [Robles'] right to substantial property. He worked hard for that money. No one should jump to any conclusions.” RECORDS CHAOS Since Judge Farina appointed Tew inventory attorney in February, Tew, his brother Jeff, and a team of staffers have worked around the clock to sort out the huge mess Robles left when he shut down his firm last November. Their monumental task: to sort through thousands of client files Robles dumped in a warehouse and search his computer hard drives. The goals are to identify Robles’ clients, figure out the status of their cases, determine how much they are still expecting in settlements and how much Robles actually received, and calculate how much he charged them in costs and what costs were legitimate. Freeman, the original inventory accountant, has allowed one of his employees, Marta Alfonso, to serve as inventory accountant under Tew. She, Tew and his brother have worked together to reconstruct Robles’ thousands of case files. “She’s the unsung hero of all this,” Tew said of Alfonso. Tew has dedicated a suite of offices in his building, the Miami Center, to the Robles matter. In addition to Alfonso, he hired eight staffers — most of them former Robles employees — to work on the case. He’s covered the back wages they were owed by the Robles Law Center. One staffer is a nurse-paralegal whose sole job is to field the 100 or so phone calls that come in daily from former Robles clients. Another Tew staffer is Robles’ former computer specialist, Bob Tyler. “He saved the day,” Tew said. Tyler has been named as a witness for both sides in the inventory case. The team’s first job was to sift through the thousands of files and X-rays at the warehouse. Tew is livid about the condition in which Robles left his case files, displaying photos of client X-rays piled several feet deep on the warehouse floor. “Louis abandoned those clients,” Tew fumed. “Why couldn’t he find lawyers to take over their cases, like I’m doing?” One couple whose case file was stored at the warehouse called Alfonso to tell her that they had made a videotape of their autistic child to use as evidence. The former Robles clients are suing vaccine companies for making a vaccine with a mercury-based preservative that allegedly caused their child’s condition. But the video is missing from the warehouse. One of the first things Tew did after taking the inventory assignment was to pay Robles’ malpractice insurance premium, which was past due, as well as back rent on the warehouse, where the landlord was threatening to throw all the case files in the street. Robles’ $7 million professional liability policy could be an important source of payment to Robles’ former clients. But Tew fears that Robles’ policy may not cover any of the client claims if Robles is found to have engaged in criminal conduct. Once Tew’s team identified all of Robles’ clients, it sent out form letters to all the clients, explaining that Robles had been disbarred and that Tew was now serving as inventory attorney. The letter gave the clients the option of signing with Tew or finding other counsel. Tew said Tew Cardenas is willing to take over only Robles’ 7,000 asbestos cases, which it’s qualified to handle because of its extensive experience in bankruptcy work. Jeff Tew said the majority of Robles asbestos clients already have signed on with Tew Cardenas. The firm has found other attorneys willing to take over the remaining 5,000 cases, including the breast implant, pharmaceutical and mold cases, though it isn’t known how many clients have signed with those firms. So far, the Miami-Dade Circuit Court has reimbursed Tew Cardenas for $227,000 in costs; the firm still is owed $153,000 in costs, he said. The money came from referral fees being paid to Robles’ law firm by his former partner Ervin Gonzalez. Tew Cardenas has not submitted a bill for attorney fees. ‘CLEAN UP OUR OWN MESS’ Tew wants the Florida Bar to take an extraordinary action to help Robles’ former clients. Last week, he sent a letter to the Bar asking it to order an unprecedented special assessment against all 70,000 Bar members. The purpose would be to pay Robles’ asbestos clients at least half the $40 million Tew says the clients are owed. The proposed assessment would total $300 to $500 per member. “We should clean up our own mess,” said Tew. “Are we going to let this be another black mark on our profession?” Bar officials have reacted coolly to Tew’s request. No Bar group in the country has ever imposed such an assessment, according to the ABA, although every bar association has a lawyer-funded client compensation fund to compensate victims of attorney theft — but only up to a point. The closest a state bar group has ever come to what Tew is proposing occurred in Pennsylvania. In 1997, the Pennsylvania Fund for Client Security paid a total of $2 million to 1,406 victims of theft by asbestos attorney David Weinfeld. But in that case, the money already was available in the fund, and no special assessment was necessary. Weinfeld pleaded guilty to fraud charges, admitting taking more than $7 million in settlements and pocketing more than his 40 percent fee. He was required to reimburse the client security fund for the $2 million in payouts. Tew says having Florida lawyers pony up to compensate Robles’ clients is the right thing to do and in the long run will help the public image of the legal profession. “We say we want to improve the image of lawyers,” Tew noted, referring to Bar president Tod Aronovitz’s Dignity in Law public relations campaign, which cost each Bar member $45. “Well, are we going to walk it like we talk it?” But Bar leaders aren’t sold. “I find it a little premature that he hasn’t even done his job yet and he’s proposing this,” said Miles McGrane, a Miami lawyer who is president-elect of the Florida Bar. “We do clean up our own mess. We disbarred [Robles], didn’t we?” He doubts that Bar members would voluntarily agree to contribute to such a special fund. McGrane points out that the Florida Bar has a clients’ security fund financed with $25 of each lawyer-member’s annual dues; it compensates victims of attorney theft for claims up to $25,000 each. Clients must apply within two years of the problem, and a committee reviews all applications. The Bar’s Boggs said the fund typically holds several million dollars, but much of that is doled out each year in routine claims. The Bar would prefer not to exhaust the fund with massive claims from one case like that of Robles, he said. But one former Robles client already has applied to the fund for compensation. Tew argues that the special assessment is needed because there’s not nearly enough in the clients security fund to compensate all 7,000 of Robles’ asbestos clients. It could be as long as 10 years before the full asbestos settlements come in for all of Robles’ clients, and many of the clients will be dead by then, Tew says. The delay is associated with the fact that the asbestos defendants are involved in 22 separate bankruptcy proceedings. “Bankruptcies move at a glacial pace,” he noted. That’s why he’s moving for the special assessment. The Bar, he said, later could collect any future payments to Robles’ clients and retroactively offset the special assessment by offering a dues discount. But Frazier, the former Robles client, said Robles, not other Florida lawyers, should be solely responsible for paying his former clients. “I don’t think it’s their problem, and they shouldn’t have to pay,” Frazier said. “He should have to sell his mansion.”

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