(John Disney/Daily Report)
A federal judge ordered more than $1 million in sanctions Friday against Miami attorney Bernardo Roman III, who represented the Miccosukee tribe in its feverish pursuit of a federal racketeering suit against its former legal counsel.
The Miccosukee tribe’s “internal feud blinded its counsel, Bernardo Roman III, from adhering to the ethical tenants of our profession,” U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami wrote. She called his conduct “egregious and abhorrent” more than a year after finding no basis for the lawsuit.
The sanctions order flows from the highly contentious complaint in 2012 against the tribe’s former attorneys: Guy Lewis and Michael Tein of Lewis Tein and Dexter Lehtinen of Lehtinen Schultz Riedi Catalano de la Fuente.
Lehtinen and Lewis are former U.S. attorneys in Miami. Cooke ordered Roman to pay Lewis Tein $975,750 and Lehtinen $95,640.
The lawsuit claimed the lawyers helped former Miccosukee chairman Billy Cypress embezzle $26 million. It also claimed Lewis Tein billed the tribe for work never performed and Lehtinen’s tax advice to a $170 million Internal Revenue Service lien against the tribe and its members for failing to report gambling profits.
Cooke dismissed the lawsuit in September 2013.
“The wrongful conduct is the filing of the complaints with no reasonable factual basis to support their allegations,” she wrote.
Cooke’s 27-page order referred Roman to the Florida Bar, where he already faces an ethics investigation, and the Southern District of Florida professional committee for possible disciplinary action.
The judge declined to refer the case to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal prosecution as requested. She also declined to sanction Roman’s associates, Yesenia Lara and Yinet Pino.
In response, Lewis Tein attorney Paul Calli of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Miami accused Roman of filing a “cowardly series of drive-by-shooting-like lawsuits,” including the federal “lawsuit devoid of any merit.”
Roman did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
‘Bordering on Angry’
The lawsuit was hardly the only action against the lawyers by the tribe. At least two lawsuits were filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court making similar claims. One has been dismissed.
Lewis Tein and the tribe also wrangled over the firm’s representation of two members named in a wrongful death lawsuit based on a drunken-driving manslaughter case. A jury returned a $2.6 million award for the survivors of the victim and then the plaintiff, with the tribe’s consent, tried unsuccessfully to get Lewis Tein to pay the damages from its fees.
Throughout the litigation, Lewis, Tein and Lehtinen said the allegations were knowingly false and a slander attempt.
In the request for federal sanctions, the former tribal attorneys asked Cooke for legal fees and expenses and to refer Roman to the U.S. attorney’s office for an obstruction of justice investigation.
The sanctions hearing stretched from the originally scheduled two days to nine last summer with Cooke becoming frustrated by Roman.
“I am beyond perplexed and bordering on anger because it’s clear to me, Mr. Roman, that you’ve just probably never read the rule of ethics,” Cooke said at one point. “And if you had, you must have been absent from school that day.”
Lewis Tein accused Roman of perjuring himself during his testimony at the sanctions hearing by telling Cooke the firm didn’t turn over court files when they were replaced by him after the ouster of Cypress.
Roman also testified, among other things, that he used a brochure for Lewis’ open house to justify filing the lawsuit. He determine the lawyer had too many expensive possessions, such as antique cars, and must have looted the tribe.
A stunned Cooke asked him, “You used this document? You used a real estate brochure?”
Gunster attorney William K. Hill, representing the tribe and Roman, asked Cooke to remove herself from the case because of her comments during the sanctions hearing. Chief U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore ruled in October that Cooke should remain on the case.
“Clients are not served by the type of tit-for-tat behavior that has taken place here,” Moore wrote.
He ruled the recusal motion divorced “the court’s comments from their context and mischaracterizes Judge Cooke’s statements.”
“Attorneys cannot accuse other attorneys of fraud without recognizing the impact that such an allegation will have on the thing that attorneys hold most dear—their reputation,” he said.