Michael Tein and Guy Lewis (AM Holt)
The beleaguered attorney for the Miccosukee tribe testified he used an open house brochure in determining whether to file a $26 million racketeering lawsuit against Miami attorney Guy Lewis’ law firm, among other factors.
Lewis, a former interim U.S. attorney, represented the tribe along with law partner Michael Tein of Lewis Tein and Dexter Lehtinen’s former law firm.
The federal lawsuit against filed by the Miccosukees against the three lawyers was dismissed last year, and Lewis, Tein and Lehtinen are seeking sanctions against the tribe, lead counsel Bernardo Roman III and his associates. Lehtinen also is a former U.S. attorney.
They claim Roman’s firm filed the lawsuit knowing it contained false accusations of kickbacks and fraud to professionally sully the tribe’s former attorneys.
Roman took the stand Monday and Tuesday in an effort to prove he filed the lawsuit in good faith. Among his evidence was a brochure advertising Lewis’ open house that showcased his personal car collection.
Roman said the brochure supported his lawsuit because it showed sudden “unexplained wealth.”
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami, in one of many moments of incredulity with Roman, asked late Monday: “You used this document? You used a real estate brochure?”
The sanctions hearing was scheduled for one day but stretched into Tuesday. Cooke refused to allow the tribe to call a money laundering expert, saying he had no bearing on Roman’s justification for filing the lawsuit.
The Gunster law firm, representing the tribe, repeatedly delayed Roman’s cross-examination by asking Cooke to take witnesses out of order. Gunster shareholder William Hill then told Cooke he was about to wrap up the direct questioning of Roman only to change course and say it would stretch into another day.
“This is taking too long,” Cooke complained at one point Tuesday.
At one point Tuesday, when Roman was reading from an exhibit, Lehtinen objected, telling Cooke, “They are now just reading from documents just so I don’t get my full time at cross-examination.” Cooke at the end of Tuesday’s exhausting session said she would e-mail parties as to when the sanction hearing would resume.
Lehtinen is a partner at Lehtinen Schultz Riedi Catalano de la Fuente in Miami. He, Lewis and Tein represented the tribe for years in Everglades environmental litigation.
Roman said he had ample evidence that Lewis, Tein and Lehtinen were covering for embezzlement by former tribal chairman Billy Cypress.
Roman said Lewis often accompanied Cypress on trips to Las Vegas where the chairman ran up huge amounts of gambling debts.
Roman also said the tribe’s former financial director, Miguel Hernandez, told him that Lewis and Lehtinen knew of illegal activity by Cypress. Roman said he also had evidence that large legal bills submitted by Lewis Tein were designed to kick back cash to Cypress.
“I asked him (Hernandez) if there was a kickback scheme, and he just laughed,” Roman testified.
Hernandez, a defendant in the dismissed racketeering lawsuit, was in the gallery watching the testimony, shaking his head during Roman’s testimony. Hernandez said he had no comment.
Roman also went through a chart of Lewis Tein bills for representing the tribe and members. He said many times there was little or no work product for costly cases.
“They were not only unreasonable fees, there was no support, there was no work,” said Roman, who put the total amount of Lewis Tein billings at $8.4 million for six years of work.
When it came to Lehtinen, Roman testified the lawyer worked in concert with the Internal Revenue Service to provide records that benefited Cypress but hurt the tribe and its members.
Lehtinen repeatedly objected, noting Roman previously told the court that the only tax issue that mattered was whether Lehtinen advised the tribe to set up a fund to pay any back taxes.
Lehtinen, who is representing himself, was supported by his wife in the gallery, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
Attorney Paul Calli of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, representing Lewis Tein, initially objected to the open house brochure but changed his mind, saying the home was purchased in 2006 when Lewis Tein billed the tribe $40,000.
“Let it all in,” he told Cooke.
In the last 45 minutes of the day, Calli was finally able to cross Roman. He asked Roman if he could prove if “one transaction or one dollar” went from Lewis Tein to Billy Cypress as a kickback. Roman said he did not have any such evidence and that he conjectured that fraud occurred based on the amount the firm charged the tribe. Roman also confirmed a tribal official’s deposition that he is being paid $250,000 a month to represent the tribe.
Cooke questioned Roman’s long soliloquies Monday in justifying the lawsuit. “We are so far downstream as to what can possibly be credible,” she said.
Litigation involving the tribe directed is not confined to federal court. Roman filed two similar malpractice lawsuits against the same attorneys.
One was dismissed last December by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Thornton. He recused himself this week from all cases involving Lehtinen. Thornton noted he has applied for vacancies on the federal bench, and Lehtinen is a member of the Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission.