Within six years, Guy Lewis and Michael Tein built their Miami law firm into a respected boutique representing the Miccosukee Indian tribe, troubled Miami Beach entrepreneur Nevin Shapiro and St. Joe Paper Co. in the BP oil spill recovery effort.
The complex litigation and criminal defense firm headed by Lewis, a former interim U.S. attorney, and Tein, a former federal prosecutor, landed clients ranging from corporations to professional athletes needing a deft touch and an eye for detail.
"Lewis is a lawyer of note, a former U.S. attorney who has been dedicated to the service of the community," said Miami criminal defense attorney Ben Kuehne. "He built a juggernaut of a law firm."
But that juggernaut finds itself under assault on several fronts.
The firm reached a $400,000 settlement in a fee clawback action in the bankruptcy of Shapiro’s Ponzi-scheming company. Lewis Tein had represented Shapiro as a witness in a Miami federal money-laundering case. Shapiro was later arrested on federal charges filed in New Jersey for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme and then famously went public about corrupting student athletes at the University of Miami.
The firm and its founders were named in federal fraud and state malpractice lawsuits filed by their ex-client, the Miccosukee tribe, which claims Lewis Tein charged "excessive and unreasonable fees for fictitious, improperly created, excessive, exorbitant and unreasonable and/or unsubstantiated work."
The drama, which has become fodder for legal blogs, amounts to blood in the water for South Florida’s goldfish bowl of a legal community. The firm has been raided by competitors while others have left of their own accord. The firm’s website in May 2010 listed 15 attorneys. It’s dwindled to six, including the founders and two of counsel.
"Has this damaged us? Yes." Tein said. "We were seen as vulnerable by other firms. I don’t blame lawyers for leaving us. I understand. They didn’t want to put up with this anymore."
The litigation has revealed how much the firm charged clients — always rumored to be high.
The Miccosukee tribe produced records last September showing more than $10 million in checks went to Lewis Tein from 2005 to 2010, including $2.1 million to defend two members of the tribe in a wrongful death suit that produced a $3.2 million award.
In the bankruptcy clawback suit, Lewis Tein’s fee agreement with Shapiro was spelled out: a nonrefundable $500,000 plus $25,000 a day if Shapiro went to trial in a checking-cashing fraud case. He didn’t. The firm ended up buying Shapiro’s mortgaged 61-foot fishing yacht, rechristening it Knot Guilty.
Tein said he knows some in the legal community are taking joy in his firm’s plight.
"Guy and I are not inexpensive, but we really kill ourselves for our clients and by and large get wonderful results for them," Tein said.
Dina Keever is of counsel at Lewis Tein and lost a November race for Palm Beach County state attorney. The former federal prosecutor said she expects the firm will emerge stronger.
"I have seen other boutique firms go through this," she said. "A lot of times, if you lose that one big client, you lose some attorneys. I think it’s just growing pains."
The New Yorker and the Southerner
Lewis and Tein are partners of contrasting backgrounds but pugnacious when pressed.
Tein comes from a Jewish background in New York and is known for his relentlessness.
Lewis is a Southern charmer from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who spins folksy tales to make his legal points but can be hard as nails in court.
When talking about prosecutorial exuberance, Lewis told the Daily Business Review in 2010: "I’m not saying aggressiveness is bad. But what I am saying is when you start throwing 95, 96, 97 mph fastballs, you got to be real careful about that."
The professional mettle and skills of both partners were honed while front-line lawyers for the Justice Department.
Lewis moved up the ladder to first assistant and served as interim U.S. attorney from 2001 to 2003 after the departure of U.S. Attorney Tom Scott.
Lewis served on the trial team that won the 1992 drug conviction of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and as U.S. attorney hailed the convictions of five members of a Cuban spy ring. He then went to Washington and took charge of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys.
Tein handled complex criminal cases, pursuing an airplane broker who violated the U.S. arms embargo against Serbia. He prosecuted lawyers for obstruction of justice and suborning perjury.
Lewis declined comment for this article. But Tein said his partner planned to return to Chattanooga in 2004 as a line prosecutor. "I said, ‘You are going to be bored in Chattanooga.’ "
Tein lured him to Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Miami. After two years, Tein talked a reluctant Lewis into establishing their own firm — initially in a spare bedroom in Lewis’ home. His dining room furniture came from the set of Gone With the Wind.
The firm immediately attracted big-name clients.
It represented New Orleans Saints linebacker and former UM star Jonathan Vilma after the South Florida native was charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer. The charge was dismissed. Lewis Tein also represented soccer star Adrian Mutu in his contract dispute with the Chelsea Football Club.
On the corporate level, Lewis Tein represented Dell Inc. in numerous intellectual property and trademark disputes. The firm also represented Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Toyota Inc. and Tyco International Ltd., among other household corporate names.
Lewis Tein’s fortunes changed when Colley Billie defeated 24-year tribal chairman Billy Cypress in 2009.
Billie replaced Lewis Tein and long-time tribal attorney Dexter Lehtinen, also a former U.S. attorney in Miami, with attorney Bernardo Roman III.
Lehtinen, who hired Lewis as a federal prosecutor in 1988, spearheaded federal litigation by the tribe challenging federal and state agencies over pollution of the Everglades, the tribe’s homeland. The primary source of income for the 600-member tribe is a casino-hotel complex on the western edge of Miami. Lehtinen declined comment for this story.
Billie pressed the lawsuits against Lewis Tein, accusing the firm of charging the tribe for work never performed.
The federal lawsuit, which also names Lehtinen, claims the lawyers were complicit in helping the tribe’s ousted chairman allegedly embezzle $26 million to fund gambling sprees.
The firm has spent much time and effort fighting perjury allegations by the wrongful death plaintiffs against Lewis Tein. Liliana Bermudez was killed in a collision caused by a drunken member of the tribe, Tammy Billie, driving her father’s uninsured vehicle.
When it was learned Lewis Tein was paid at least $2.1 million for their defense, the Bermudez family wanted to know why the law firm had collected money but the family members hadn’t.
Lewis Tein said the firm earned its money defending a $27 million demand in five years of litigation. The firm insists the fees came from Billie and her father through loans from the tribe to be repaid from the member stipends funded by the tribe’s gambling concerns.
Both sides have been chastised and sanctioned by trial and appellate judges on various issues, but key depositions of tribal leaders and employees back up the firm.
The fee dispute drew the attention of The Florida Bar. Lewis and Tein hired former Miami U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, who successfully got The Bar to drop its inquiry.
"I’ve seen political and corporate feuds at many levels, and I can’t recall an uglier political crossfire than this," said Coffey, a partner at Coffey Burlington in Miami, who in the past has represented law firms in trouble.
Warren Trazenfeld, a Miami attorney who specializes in legal malpractices case, put it this way about Lewis Tein’s public relations nightmare: "You know you are in trouble when you have to hire Kendall Coffey. And anytime a law firm spends more time defending its conduct than defending its clients, it’s a problem."
The tribe amended its federal complaint in November, renewing racketeering allegations against the defendants even though the claims had been dismissed previously by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke as factually not supported.
The tribe’s lawsuit alleging fraud and theft accuses Lewis Tein of conspiring with Cypress to create fictitious legal bills and then kicking back a portion of the fee to him.
Calls and emails to Roman, the tribe’s attorney, went unanswered.
Lewis Tein hired attorney Paul Calli, a partner at Carlton Fields in Miami, to handle its defense against the civil charges brought by the Miccosukees.
Calli has called for sanctions against the tribe in federal court, saying the lawsuit "is a political ploy, attempting to blame the Lewis Tein firm (along with the tribe’s former officers, employees, lawyers, accountants and bankers) for internal issues relating to the tribe’s business and legal affairs."
"The tribe and its lawyer know (or should know) that the tribe’s complaint is not supported by facts and law," he wrote in the Oct. 15 pleading. Cooke has taken under advisement the firm’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint.
Miami criminal defense attorney William Barzee, a supporter of the firm, noted Billie is up for re-election in November.
"This lawsuit seems nothing more than politics, a means to an end — an effort by current one-term chairman Colley Billie to stay in office by maligning Billy Cypress to prevent him being re-elected," Barzee said. "Lewis Tein and Dexter Lehtinen and the others suffer as collateral damage, casualties in the tribe’s internal political blood feud."
Tein takes exception to the tribe’s attacks on his partner’s lifestyles in the state lawsuits. Lewis has an antique car collection and has hosted a car show at his home. Guy Lewis Classic Cars LLC is managed by his wife.
"Guy works on his old cars all the time.  Most of time in court he’s still got the grit under his nails," Tein said.
As the courtroom drama unfolds, the controversy swirling around Lewis Tein has enthralled the legal community.
"It’s an only-in-Miami story," Trazenfeld said. "You have a law firm chased by The Florida Bar, sanctioned and chastised by judges, and they are still surviving. They are certainly tenacious."
Lewis Tein was chastised last June by the Third District Court of Appeal for trying to remove Miami-Dade Judge Ronald Dresnick from the wrongful death case because he made an off-the-cuff remark suggesting lawyers should "pass the peace pipe" and try to get along. The appellate court, which has been asked by various parties to intervene in the case multiple times, said the law firm acted "recklessly and unprofessionally." One opinion noted the two sides have traded at least 20 sanctions motions.
The firm notes Ramon M. Rodriguez, the plaintiffs attorney in the Bermudez case, also has been called out by the Third DCA. At a Feb. 4 hearing, Senior Judge Alan Schwartz called Rodriguez’s conduct "horrendous."
The tribe has tweaked the firm’s nose at every opportunity. Last week in the state malpractice case, Miami-Dade Judge John Thornton struck a pleading by Roman listing Lewis and Tein’s personal property to buttress the tribe’s depiction of them as profiteers, saying it was "not a professional document." He implored the attorneys to "conduct yourselves professionally."
Kuehne knows what it’s like to fight unsubstantiated charges. He was charged with money laundering in 2008 for his work vetting legal fees for a drug trafficker. The charges were eventually dropped.
"When somebody who is in the legal profession is the subject of the legal process, it’s of great interest," Kuehne said. "Guy and Mike are well-known and respected. And then you add in the sovereign Miccosukee nation with all of its legal issues. It’s fascinating."
Attorney Jon May, a partner at Roetzel & Andress in Fort Lauderdale who served on the Noriega defense team opposite Lewis, said what hurts attorneys is that it doesn’t matter if the accusations filed against them are true or not.
"People jump to conclusions without proof, and it ends up hurting the subject of all this scrutiny. It’s really tough," May said. "It ends up taking a toll on your life no matter how well you come through it."