Florida Supreme Court building. Photo: Phil Sears/Special to the Daily Business Review

The Florida Supreme Court refused Thursday to reinstate the bar license of a former Miami criminal defense attorney who pleaded guilty to aiding members of the Cali cartel.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners recommended granting the request from ex-attorney Donald L. Ferguson, but a divided high court denied the request for readmission.

Ferguson, 71, has not practiced law in Florida for more than 22 years but is a member in good standing of the Maine Bar. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1973 and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney before going into private practice.

That work led him to face criminal charges of his own.

In 1995, federal prosecutors charged him with money laundering and conspiracy to obstruct justice. About four years later, Ferguson pleaded guilty to both charges, and was sentenced to two years in prison and three years’ supervised release.

Ferguson was later indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and four counts of money laundering for accepting about $565,000 in cash to defend a client facing a first-degree murder charge. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to receive and deposit narcotics proceeds and was sentenced to five years’ probation to run concurrently with his supervised release.

More trouble followed when Ferguson failed to pay personal federal income taxes from 1996-2008 and 2010-2011. Liens were filed against him for unpaid taxes from 1996-1999 and 2000-2002. He faced civil penalties but no criminal tax charges.

The conviction for conspiracy to obstruct justice stemmed from allegations the attorney notarized affidavits that made false statements to protect a high-ranking Cali cartel member arrested for drug smuggling conspiracy.

The state Supreme Court suspended his law license after he entered the guilty pleas, and the bar filed a complaint against him 1999. In response, Ferguson filed an unopposed petition for disciplinary resignation. The high court, which has the final word on attorney discipline, allowed him to resign in 2000.

A New York Times article on the Ferguson case shows he claimed he was not aware of any false statements because the affidavits were in Spanish, which he did not understand. Ferguson did not represent the defendant but notarized the affidavits on the request of a lawyer at a Washington law firm that sent him lucrative criminal defense cases, according to the Florida Supreme Court ruling.

That same Washington law firm led to Ferguson’s money laundering conviction. It sent him $75,000 in cash, which Ferguson then turned over to a defendant’s wife, who used the money to get her husband released on bond.

“He delivered the money for the same reason he notarized the false affidavits: because he was asked to do so by the people who were sending him lucrative legal business and he did not want to ‘ruffle  feathers,’ ” according to the unsigned opinion by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices R. Fred Lewis, Charles T. Canady and Ricky Polston.

Justices C. Alan Lawson, Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince dissented.

Ferguson has since paid his taxes, volunteered thousands of hours to area nonprofits and made a ethics presentation to a law school class describing his illegal activities and steps toward rehabilitation. He made an unsuccessful attempt at readmission in 2014 and tried again in 2016.

This time, the bar examiners found in his favor, but the majority of justices rejected the recommendation.

Writing for the minority, Lawson said Ferguson proved his rehabilitation and suggested the court had an “ unsettlingly arbitrary” reason for its denial.

“I do not understand quibbling about whether 791 hours of volunteer service with Boca Helping Hands between 2011 and 2017 … constitute sufficient ‘extra effort to overcome his past mistakes,’ ” the justice wrote in dissent. “ Notions of fundamental fairness dictate that if the basis for our rejection of Mr. Ferguson’s application for readmission is really too few community service hours, we should at least tell him how many hours we think it would take, in the next two years, to atone for his past misconduct. Without that type of guidance, in the rules or elsewhere, the decision to reject Ferguson’s application for readmission on this basis alone appears unsettlingly arbitrary.”

Ferguson could not be reached for comment by deadline. His attorney in the readmission proceedings, John A. Weiss of Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell in Tallahassee, Florida, declined to comment. His former criminal defense attorney, Neal R. Sonnett in Miami, also declined to comment.