Judge Angel A. Cortinas, Third District Court of Appeal (J. Albert Diaz)
A Miami federal judge on Thursday disqualified former state appellate Judge Angel Cortiñas from representing the Miccosukee tribe and its attorneys at a sanctions hearing.
The sanctions request flows from the tribe’s dismissed racketeering lawsuit against its former longtime lawyers Dexter Lehtinen, Guy Lewis and Michael Tein, among others. They alleged the tribe’s current attorney, Bernardo Roman III, filed the lawsuit knowing it contained false allegations.
The attorneys are seeking their attorney fees and costs in the racketeering lawsuit. Lewis and Tein of Lewis Tein are asking the judge to refer Roman and two associates, Yesenia Lara and Yinet Pino, to the Florida Bar for an ethics investigation.
They also want U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke to refer the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office for an obstruction of justice investigation.
Attorney Paul Calli, representing Lewis and Tein, told Cooke, “You know Mr. Roman is misleading the court if his lips are moving.”
The sanctions hearing was continued until Friday to allow Cortiñas’ replacement to get up to speed. “I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t know why,” she told the tribe’s attorneys.
At one point a seething Cooke told the tribe’s attorneys, “someone needs to step outside and get the story straight.”
Separately, Lehtinen has asked Cooke to hold Roman and the tribe in contempt for failing to turn over complete audio tapes of tribal council and business meetings where he allegedly gave bad tax advice, a key claim in the racketeering suit. The motions indicate he believes portions of the tapes were purposely deleted.
Lehtinen, Lewis and Tein argued Cortiñas, a Gunster partner, heard related cases as a judge on the Third District Court of Appeal.
Lehtinen said Cortiñas should be disqualified because he worked for Lehtinen’s firm when he represented the tribe in the mid-1990s.
Lehtinen is a partner at Lehtinen Schultz Riedi Catalano de la Fuente. Lehtinen and Lewis are former U.S. attorneys.
Cooke said she was mindful clients have the right to the counsel of their choice but said Cortiñas’ work for Lehtinen falls within the time frame mentioned in the dismissed complaint.
She said Cortiñas as Lehtinen’s former law partner would be familiar with all of the small firm’s business with the tribe and agreed with Lehtinen that it amounted to an “unfair informational advantage.”
She said this perceived conflict was reason enough to disqualify Cortiñas.
“How does it look for those on the outside who are not lawyers?” Cooke asked. “How do we police ourselves?”
Cooke ruled Cortiñas did not violate ethics rules by representing the tribe after hearing similar issues while an appellate judge. Though she added his appearance “disturbs me.”
As a result, she ruled the Gunster firm was not disqualified from representing the tribe or its attorneys at the evidentiary hearing on sanctions to continue Friday morning.
Cortiñas told Cooke before his disqualification that the tribe’s former attorneys were afraid of his legal prowess. “The reason they really don’t want me here is I know fraud cases very well,” Cortiñas said.
Cooke said the comment somewhat indicated the tribe may have had incompetent counsel in Roman and his associates.
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Cortiñas argued his work on the appeals court had no bearing on the hearing because those issues involved Lewis and Tein as attorneys, not parties in a complaint. But Cooke asked why Cortiñas submitted as an exhibit a Third District order when he was on the court. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” she said.
Roman told Cooke after Cortiñas’ disqualification that he had been asked by the tribe not to represent it on the sanctions issue and was not prepared to go forward.
Cooke said she was incensed because the hearing had been noticed and Lewis and Tein first asked for sanctions in 2012. Roman said it would not harm anyone if the sanctions motion were postponed until later in the year.
Cooke said Lehtinen, Lewis and Tein might have something important to gain. “They want their personal and professional reputation restored,” she said.
Calli, a partner at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, represents Lewis and Tein. He said Roman’s tactics were about delaying inevitable sanctions for knowingly filing false allegations against his clients.
“How much longer can Bernie Roman keep alive the lie he created?” Calli asked. “It does have to stop. His actions have been a fraud upon the federal courts and the state courts.”