Marcia Cooke
Marcia Cooke (Melanie Bell)

An attorney for Miami lawyers Guy Lewis, Michael Tein and Dexter Lehtinen came out swinging in opening statements Tuesday in their bid for sanctions against the Miccosukee tribe and its attorney, Bernardo Roman IIII.

Paul Calli of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, who represents Lewis and Tein, accused the tribe of either intentionally filing a baseless lawsuit against the prominent lawyers or failing to check its records.

“Even with contradictory evidence, they pressed on … in the process gravely hurting Lewis and Tein’s reputations,” said Calli, who was uncharacteristically subdued after suffering three broken ribs.

The evidentiary hearing before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami stems from a sanctions request filed by Lewis, Tein and Lehtinen in 2012 accusing the tribe and its attorney of filing a frivolous suit against them over their representation of the tribe.

Cooke dismissed that racketeering and fraud suit with prejudice, calling it an intratribal dispute. A Miami-Dade circuit judge also dismissed a malpractice lawsuit making similar allegations against the lawyers.

Lehtinen and Lewis are former U.S. attorneys in Miami, and Tein is a former federal prosecutor. Lewis and Tein of the Lewis Tein firm in Miami and Lehtinen of Lehtinen Schultz Riedi Catalano de la Fuente in Miami all represented the Native American tribe at various times but were dismissed after a new tribal chairman took over.

Since then, relations have soured with the tribe’s new lawyer, Roman, accusing its former lawyers of drastically overbilling the tribe by millions of dollars, filing fictitious bills and failing to notify the tribe of its need to file federal income tax returns. Lewis, Tein and Lehtinen deny the accusations. The tribe even accused Lewis and Tein of purposely establishing a law firm in order to commit fraud.

Cooke appeared to blanch at that allegation, saying in court Tuesday, “That’s a pretty significant statement to have in a complaint.”

Both sides made their opening statements in a mini-trial that is expected to last several days.

“The tribes own documents will do them in, their own witnesses will do them in, and their own employees they fired will do them in,” Calli said in his opening.

Edward Marod of Gunster handled the opening statements for the tribe after his partner Angel Cortiñas was disqualified after hearing related cases while serving as a judge on the Third District Court of Appeal.

Addressing the question of why more than half of the tapes of tribal meetings attended by Lehtinen were missing or erased, Marod said Lehtinen didn’t speak into a microphone at a lectern but rather would wander around the room.

“So there’s no surprise that the tapes weren’t audible,” Marod said.

Another Gunster attorney, William Hill, noted that the tribe’s accounting firm, Berkowitz Pollack Brant, was paid $100,000 and spent 400 hours investigating the three lawyers’ bills before the suit was filed, compiling a massive database.

Hill noted Tein and Lewis charged tribe member Tammy Billie $2 million to defend her in a drunken-driving case in which she slammed into several parked cars.

“Millions were charged that were unsupported by work product,” Hill said. “These fees were not approved by the tribal council.” He also alleged Lewis used the millions he raked in from the tribe to buy luxury homes and cars.

Cooke asked Hill whether his law firm was hired differently than Lewis Tein. After consulting with other lawyers, Hill responded that his firm was chosen by the entire tribal council.

As his first witness, Calli called Jeanine Bennett, assistant general counsel for the tribe from 2003 to 2010. He asked if she knew whether the lawyers engaged in a kickback scheme or submitted phony invoices.

“I have no reason to believe that’s the case,” she replied.

When Hill cross-examined her, he asked whether she went over the lawyers’ bills with Jimmie and Louise Bert. Their daughter was convicted of drunken-driving manslaughter in the death of Liliana Bermudez in 2000, and her father was sued for wrongful death as the owner of the car. They were represented by Lewis and Tein in the matter.

“It wasn’t my job to go line by line over the bill,” Bennett replied. “I didn’t tally up all the bills.”

The hearing was set to resume Monday and last at least three days.