A new attorney has been appointed to represent a client of Michelle Suskauer, the current president of the Florida Bar, after an investigation was opened against her over the involvement of a disbarred lawyer in her representation of a defendant facing money laundering charges.
Fort Lauderdale litigator Jonathan Friedman entered a notice of appearance as the attorney for Anthony D’Amico in the Southern District of Florida on Wednesday. D’Amico, who has been charged with wire fraud and money laundering, had previously been represented by Suskauer. However, D’Amico submitted a letter to U.S. District Senior Judge James Cohn on May 23 raising concerns about the Florida Bar president’s handling of his case. In his letter, D’Amico contended “every aspect” of his defense had been seen to by disbarred West Palm Beach attorney John Garcia.
“I am writing because I have sent notice to my attorney Michelle Suskauer to remove herself as my attorney due to her misguiding me legally, having another individual whom is no Ionger a Iicensed attorney handle every aspect of my case, and in no way helping defend myself or my interests,” D’Amico wrote. The defendant’s letter claimed he had only met Suskauer twice and said he was instructed to pay $10,000 to Garcia on Suskauer’s retainment. Although D’Amico acknowledged Garcia was presented to him as a federal court specialist for Suskauer’s law firm Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein, he writes that he met Garcia at a law office he appears to work from and said the former litigator “has an attorney website and his business card seems to be that of an attorney.”
“I am the victim of a disbarred and federally convicted former attorney giving me false advice and scare tactics, and Mrs. Suskauer was simply out of the loop,” D’Amico said. The defendant had previously entered a guilty plea to five counts of wire fraud as well as two counts of money laundering and had been scheduled to be sentenced on May 29. D’Amico’s new legal counsel, Friedman, declined to provide comment.
Suskauer subsequently entered a motion to withdraw as D’Amico’s legal representative on May 24. During a hearing on her motion, Suskauer told the court Garcia had been employed with her firm as an independently contracted paralegal and in an advisory capacity to clients facing prison time.
“We used him as an expert so that our clients, if they’re sentenced as such, will be able to be better acclimated to the procedure,” she said. “He was never held out as an attorney. He was never held out as a practicing attorney. He was there to review documents with us.” Suskauer also said D’Amico had previously met with her and Garcia simultaneously and at times would only respond to communication from Garcia. D’Amico, who was present for the hearing, denied Suskauer’s assertion they had met more than 10 times.
Cohn expressed strong reservations about Garcia’s involvement with the case. Before granting Suskauer’s motion to withdraw, the senior judge told the attorney “my primary concern is not necessarily what you did or didn’t do. My primary concern is the role of Mr. Garcia.”
Read the minutes from the hearing:
“Certainly his role was more than that of a paralegal,” Cohn said. “And he had direct client contact, which is prohibited by the Florida Bar.” The judge added “the Florida Bar needs to take a look at this” and expressed his intention to refer the matter to the bar for investigation. Florida Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker told the Daily Business Review on Monday staff investigations had been opened against Suskauer and Garcia.
Attorney and legal ethics specialist Brian Tannebaum has been retained by Suskauer in light of the investigation. The Miami and Tallahassee-based litigator told the Daily Business Review his client “has an impeccable record of practicing at the highest level of ethics and she looks forward to continuing to service her clients and the bar.”
Tannebaum added the use of disbarred attorneys as consultants to criminal defense lawyers “is a common practice.”
“In fact, the Florida Bar rules allow for disbarred lawyers to be employed,” he said, adding criminal defense attorneys “are often the subject of allegations of wrongdoing by their clients and others.”
A statement from Suskauer said she intends to continue serving her clients as well as the bar.
“I respect the law, the courts, the bar, and all of our legal system’s rules and procedures,” she wrote. “My goal in every case is to act competently, professionally, ethically and in the client’s best interests at every step.”
She added, “No one is beyond having their work called in to question, nor above the law — not even the outgoing bar president. Inquiries like this are a testament to the vigor and fairness of our grievance system.”
Garcia did not immediately reply to the Daily Business Review’s request for comment. According to his page on the Florida Bar’s website, he was permanently disbarred in March 2014 for acting in contempt of the Florida Supreme Court and continuing to practice law following a previous disbarment in 2008.