Escalating its legal war on lawyers, the Miccosukee Tribe has filed a motion to disqualify Miami attorney Joe Klock from representing Miami attorney Dexter Lehtinen in a malpractice lawsuit, claiming Klock has a conflict of interest.
The tribe accuses Klock of a conflict because he represents clients in pending environmental cases against the tribe, including K.W.B. Farms, New Hope Sugar, Okeelanta and Roth Farms.
The motion is the latest round in a litigation war between the tribe and three of its former lawyers, Lehtinen, Michael Tein and Guy Lewis, another former U.S. attorney. The Miami tribe has filed suit against all three lawyers accusing them of legal malpractice, among other charges.
All three deny the allegations and chalk them up to mismanagement and desperation on the part of the tribe’s new chairman, Collie Billie.
One case the tribe mentions in its action to remove Klock is the 1988 suit filed by the federal government against the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation over water-quality standards protecting the Everglades. The Miccosukee Tribe intervened on the side of the government, while Klock’s clients intervened on the defendants’ side.
Also, in 2004 the tribe filed a complaint against many federal agencies alleging failure to comply with the Clean Water Act. Again, New Hope Sugar and other clients of Klock’s intervened as defendants.
“Consequently, it is highly likely and unavoidable that during Klock’s representation of Lehtinen in the underlying civil lawsuits, Lehtinen will disclose information regarding pending litigation between the Miccosukee Tribe and New Hope Sugar, Okeelanta and Roth Farms,” the motion filed by the tribe’s attorney Bernie Roman states.
“This disclosure will result in the Miccosukee Tribe being disadvantaged, while Klock and his clients, New Hope Sugar, Okeelanta and Roth Farms, will obtain the upper hand using said confidential information that belongs to the Miccosoukee Tribe.”
Klock, former managing partner of the now-defunct law firm of Steel Hector & Davis, struck back at the tribe’s motion to disqualify him.
“The idea that I represent other people that are adverse to the Indians so I can’t represent Dexter is ludicrous,” Klock said. He said adding that Roman, the tribe’s Miami attorney, “has been smoking something. He must be passing around the peace pipe. It’s hard to take this motion seriously.”
Klock is defending Lehtinen in a lawsuit filed by the tribe accusing the former U.S. attorney and husband of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of legal malpractice. Lehtinen, who represented the tribe from 1992 to 2010, was fired in 2010. He is now a shareholder at Tew Cardenas in Miami.
The tribe filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court alleging that Lehtinen improperly advised tribe members that distributions they received from the tribe were not taxable and they did not have to pay federal income tax.
The suit seeks class action status for about 250 Miccosukees who face Internal Revenue Service demands for millions of dollars in assessments, interest and penalties.
Lehtinen has said the suit is baseless and that he repeatedly advised the tribe over the years that members had to pay taxes.
“The whole pretense of their original lawsuit is ridiculous,” Klock said. “Number one, he didn’t tell them they shouldn’t pay taxes, and number two, so what? Every citizen is presumed to know the law.”
Klock further asserts that Billy Cypress, the former tribal chairman, even set up a reserve of $24 million in case the tribe owed taxes. The new chairman, Colley Billie, doled out that reserve to tribal members in a bid to receive their continued support, Klock said.
Roman did not return calls for comment.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marcia Caballero said she will hold a hearing on the issue of whether Klock should be thrown off the case.
Last week Klock filed a broad request for production of documents from the tribe. Among his demands, which he asked to be handed over by April 14:
• all audio, video and minutes of every tribe meeting from 1992 to the present
• all sign-in sheets from every tribal meeting during that period
• financial records reflecting distributions from the tribe to all members
• financial records of tribe reserve funds from 1992 to the present
• identification of all tribe banks and monthly statements from them
• the salary and contract of all former tribe attorneys, including the law firm of Hobbs, Strauss, Dean and Wilder; White & Case; Lewis & Tein; Jorden Burt and individual lawyers Michael Diaz, Steve Otto, Bobo Dean, Anthony O’Donnell, Jeff Crockett and Jin Jorden.
• all documents showing legal advice the tribe received about its tax liability
• records of all lobbyists hired by the tribe, including Larry Smith, Ron Book, R. Clarke Cooper, Terry Rice, Don Hazelton, Jim Harvey, Lee Forsgren and Jennifer Harley
On Thursday, Caballero denied the tribe’s request to stay the discovery. She said she can review privately any information the tribe deems confidential.
Earlier this week, the tribe filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Lewis and Tein, an ex-federal prosecutor. The two lawyers worked for the tribe between 2005 and 2010 before being fired along with Lehtinen.
The suit alleges Lewis and Tein charged excessive fees for unsubstantiated work in order to maintain a lavish lifestyle. The suit details Lewis’ belongings, including a chair featured in the movie Gone with the Wind, 50 antique clocks and a flotilla of antique and classic cars including a Maybach, a 1934 Rolls Royce, a 1949 Packard, an Aston Martin, Corvettes, Mercedes Benzes, a Porsche, BMW and others. The suit notes that Lewis bought a house adjacent to his, gutted it and lodged his car collection there.
“Several model airplanes and a zeppelin swoop down from the ceiling,” the suit states. “Old auto-related memorabilia include Shell gas pumps, neon signs, a Pepsi Cola machine and a drive-in movie speaker. A wash basin and urinal add the perfect gas station touch!”
The suit also accuses the two lawyers of violating attorney-client privilege by disclosing “confidential, personal and legally protected client information and private financial records” of the tribe and simultaneously representing people whose legal interests were in conflict with the interests of the tribe. It does not cite any specifics.
The suit also accuses former tribe employees of aiding and abetting the “fraud” by recommending the payment of millions of dollars in legal fees “for alleged work that they knew or should have known was not performed.”
The lawsuit includes counts of fraud, RICO, breach of fiduciary duty, civil theft and conversion.
Tein said the suit is motivated by Collie Billie’s “running the tribe into the ground and now trying to blame someone for it.”
He said tribal members are circulating petitions to recall the chairman.
“We think they surveiled Guy’s house,” Tein said. “They are desperate. We were on our way to resolving the tax problem when the new chairman came in and fired all the attorneys and hired a criminal defense attorney. This whole thing is very transparent and frivolous all the way around.”
He insists he’s not concerned about the case.
“We’ve got Howitzers, and they’ve got pea shooters,” he said. “This is a joke.”