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Three years after more than 60 lawyers, county employees and medical professionals were arrested on charges of bilking Florida’s Miami-Dade County out of millions of dollars through fraudulent personal injury claims, the county has filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against the accused perpetrators and others. The suit alleges 85 defendants, including nearly 70 South Florida lawyers, engaged in a criminal enterprise that violated the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law and the statute laying out civil remedies for criminal practices. The two laws allow for treble damages. County officials estimate the damages at more than $15 million. The officials and outside legal observers said it was unusual for the county to seek civil damages from participants in a criminal public corruption case. But federal and state officials increasingly have used RICO statutes to follow up on criminal prosecutions to recover public funds. “This lawsuit is a signal that counties and municipalities are adopting the more common practices of federal and state government for reasons of fiscal prudence and law enforcement,” said Anthony V. Alfieri, director of Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami law school. Still, one veteran lawyer said county attorneys will find it difficult to prosecute such a large case. The 715-page complaint, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in April but only recently served on the defendants, caught many of the defendants by surprise. They say they thought they had resolved the matter after they pleaded guilty to criminal charges, paid restitution and served Florida Bar suspensions. Some attorneys who never faced criminal charges or Bar sanctions expressed shock at now being included in the civil suit. “It came completely out of the blue,” said Ralph Fonseca, a Miami solo practitioner who was served with the lawsuit at his home in late August. “To me it was a big surprise because I was never charged or arrested in any way, shape or form.” Assistant Miami-Dade County Attorney Eric K. Gressman, who filed the lawsuit, said it is unusual for the county to file a civil action to recoup losses following a criminal corruption case. “I haven’t heard of any case like this, particularly against lawyers, in 22 years with the county attorney’s office,” he said. Miles McGrane III, president of The Florida Bar, said this is the first time he’s heard of a case where a county follows up a criminal case by suing to recoup its losses. Gressman said the lawsuit was justified because the defendants stole money from county taxpayers. He said county residents “deserve to have this action brought and for it to be determined in a court of law if they can recoup their losses. It is an unfortunate thing that happened in our county.” While many defendants have yet to file responses to the lawsuit — 25 of the 85 defendants have yet to be served — some of those who responded argue that the county’s claims are vague and untimely and that there is little evidence the defendants worked together in an organized criminal enterprise. At least two defendants have filed for dismissals based on the statute of limitations. Neil Sandberg, who is representing lawyer Arturo Hernandez, one of the defendants in the new RICO lawsuit, said the county is over-reaching by pursuing those never charged in the criminal case. “It’s wrong for Dade County, in its zeal to get the miscreants, to be so sloppy,” said Sandberg, a partner at Simon Schindler & Sandberg in Miami. “The danger in throwing a wide net is that sometimes you get innocent dolphins.” Gressman, however, called the suit timely and specific in its claims. He defended the inclusion of new attorneys in the civil suit. “While the state attorney decided that beyond a reasonable doubt there was not a case with some, we decided that there was a preponderance of evidence showing that these people were involved,” Gressman said. He said the state attorney is still investigating some attorneys alleged to have been involved in the kickback scheme. Attempts were made to reach most of the 85 defendants, but nearly all calls went unreturned. Attorneys Jesus Cervantes and Gustavo Fuentes, who are defendants in the lawsuit, declined comment. The lawsuit stems from a scam carried out in the late 1990s. Attorneys who filed personal injury lawsuits against the county paid kickbacks to county risk management employees in return for expedited and inflated settlements. Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez has said that county claims adjusters typically received 10 percent of the settlements. The claims against the county generally involve slip and fall accidents on county property, injuries on county buses, accidents with county cars and false arrests. According to the lawsuit, the fraud was first discovered in May 1998 when a county worker told Risk Management Director Marsha Pascual about hearing county claims adjusters Julio Garcia and Miguel Solomon discuss kickbacks from lawyers. Later that month, Garcia was arrested and his home and office were searched. During one of the searches, investigators found a list with the names of 53 attorneys involved in the fraud scheme. It also listed various incidents where Garcia used his influence to ensure settlement of personal injury claims, according to the suit. That month, 17 lawyers, medical professionals, Garcia’s co-worker Solomon and one other county claims adjuster were arrested. In November 1999, Garcia pleaded guilty to one count of violating the state RICO law and agreed to cooperate with police. In 1999 and 2000, after an investigation by county police and the state attorney’s office dubbed “Operation Risky Business,” dozens of lawyers, claims adjusters and medical professionals who allegedly went along with bogus claims were arrested. According to Gressman, none of the defendants in the criminal cases went to jail. More than 40 were either convicted or pleaded guilty and paid restitution. Fines ranged from $10,000 to $50,000. The Florida Bar suspended a number of lawyers for periods ranging from 18 months to three years. Some criminal cases not pleaded out are on appeal, said Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. Reggie Rucker, a paralegal who works with Gressman on the case, said the county attorney’s office began preparing the lawsuit in April 2002. He said staffers listened to many hours of audiotapes from Operation Risky Business, read reams of documents and consulted with county police and the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. Miami attorney Alexis Izquierdo is one of the defendants seeking a dismissal based on the statute of limitations. Last month, Izquierdo was served with the lawsuit – just after he had completed a three-year Florida Bar suspension arising from criminal charges in the bribery case. He pleaded guilty to a single criminal count. But Elizabeth M. Culmo, who is representing Izquierdo along with her husband, Thomas A. Culmo, argues in a motion to dismiss that the statute of limitations ran out five months before the county filed suit in April. In court filings, she said the RICO violations allegedly committed by Izquierdo occurred in January 1998. “Thus � the statute of limitations for any RICO claims against Mr. Izquierdo would have expired in January of 2003.” But a similar motion to dismiss filed by Teddy L. Montoto, who represents Miami lawyer Julio Marrero, was denied last month by Circuit Judge Maxine Cohen Lando, who presides over the case. Thomas Culmo said the county’s claims, at least in regard to Izquierdo, are legally defective in other ways as well. “They are not specific about the improper conduct, and, with regard to a criminal enterprise, they give no factual basis for the claim,” he said. “And most if not all of these people did not know each other, let alone conspire together as an enterprise.” The county soon will file a motion to have a default judgment entered against approximately 13 of the 60 defendants who have been served with the lawsuit but have not responded, said Marty Reed, a paralegal who is working with Gressman. Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan, now of counsel Wetherington Klein & Hubbart in Miami, said the large number of defendants makes it a “massive” case to try. “Good grief,” Kogan marveled. “If every one of the 85 defendants came with an attorney and started filing all sorts of motions, this thing could go on for years and years. This could become a career case.”

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