LOS ANGELES � A 1992 letter to the editor of The National Law Journal identified in court documents filed last week in the kickback case against Milberg, Weiss & Bershad provides direct evidence that federal prosecutors have William Lerach in their sights.

The letter, along with a preceding article in the NLJ, are mentioned in papers that were filed as part of a plea agreement reached last week with Steven G. Cooperman, a former named plaintiff for Milberg Weiss. Cooperman has admitted he received secret payments from the New York securities firm in order to serve as lead plaintiff in several shareholder class actions.

The plea agreement is the latest move for prosecutors, who returned indictments last year against Milberg Weiss and two of its senior partners, David Bershad and Steven Schulman, on allegations that they made $216 million in attorney fees by paying $11.3 million in secret and illegal kickbacks.

According to documents filed last week with the plea agreement, Cooperman received kickbacks from a “Partner B” and “Partner A” at the firm. “Partner A” is widely believed to be Melvyn Weiss, name partner of the firm, while “Partner B” has been linked to Lerach, a partner who left in 2004.

The identity of “Partner B” became clear in the recent documents, which identify a National Law Journal article published on April 27, 1992, in which Cooperman was cited as one of a handful of plaintiffs who appeared several times in shareholder cases.

According to documents associated with Cooperman’s plea agreement, “Partner B wrote a letter to the editor-in-chief of the NLJ in which Partner B insisted, ‘Dr. Cooperman’s reputation and character are impeccable and any inference to the contrary which may be drawn from your article is unfair and unwarranted.’”

The National Law Journal records identify Lerach as the author of that letter.

At the time of the article, Lerach was head of Milberg Weiss’ San Diego office. Lerach, now of San Diego-based Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, and his lawyer, John Keker of San Francisco’s Keker & Van Nest, did not return calls seeking comment.

Weiss did not return calls by press time. Weiss’ lawyer Benjamin Brafman, a partner at New York-based Brafman & Associates, declined to comment on Lerach and would not confirm or deny whether his client is the “Partner A” referred to in court papers.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, which is bringing the case, declined to comment beyond what is stated in court papers.

The National Law Journal article said that Cooperman, a Beverly Hills eye surgeon, appeared in 19 shareholder lawsuits filed in federal and state courts and was a defendant in a racketeering suit filed by an insurer claiming he failed to disclose a heart condition while buying 18 disability policies from 15 different insurance companies. The insurer’s suit claimed Cooperman had been collecting $58,000 in benefits to assist in his shareholder litigation cases. Paul Revere Life Insurance Co. v. Cooperman, No. 91-6927-RJK (C.D. Calif.)

Cooperman’s lawyer in that case, Richard Purtich, pleaded guilty last year to funneling Milberg Weiss kickback payments to Cooperman.

In his letter to the editor, published on July 13, 2002, Lerach noted that a federal judge had thrown out the racketeering claims against Cooperman, who was later informed “that the plaintiff has decided not to amend to further assert the RICO claim.”

According to recent court papers last week, in March 1992, another Milberg Weiss attorney prepared research, at the direction of “Partner B,” that was used by Purtich free of charge to dismiss racketeering claims against Cooperman in the Paul Revere case.

The National Law Journal article also questions the attorney fees awarded to Milberg Weiss in a case against Northrop Corp., in which Milberg Weiss and two other plaintiff’s firms requested $9 million in attorney fees. Northrop v. Jones, No. 88-7332-WDK (C.D. Calif.). The request was based on the calculations of an expert, John B. Torkelsen, who was convicted last year of defrauding the government and is a focus for prosecutors in the Milberg Weiss case.

One of the defense lawyers in the case, John F. Walter, is the federal judge overseeing the Milberg Weiss criminal case. Walter has acknowledged his involvement in the case.

Prosecutors cited a Northrop case in noting a discussion in July 1991 between Cooperman and “Partner B.” Both discussed how Milberg Weiss could pay an outstanding balance of kickbacks owed in five other cases by using the incoming attorney fees awarded in the Northrop case. The next month, Milberg Weiss and Bershad sent a $20,000 check to James P. Tierney, one of Cooperman’s attorneys, with a cover letter signed by “Partner B” that said it was payment “relating to the Northrop shareholder litigation.”

Tierney later wrote a $12,000 check to Cooperman. At an earlier meeting, “Partner B” had given Cooperman $16,000 in cash as partial payment for the five cases.

The National Law Journal article also mentions the attorney fees in a case against Cetus Corp. In re Cetus Corp. Securities Litigation, C-90-2042 (N.D. Calif.).

In the Cetus case, court papers say Cooperman sent a letter to “Partner B” in July 1990 telling him he expected a “negative bombshell” to be announced by the company, according to court papers. In 1991, Milberg Weiss received about $1.78 million in attorney fees in the case. Later that year, Cooperman received a $100,000 check, described as a “loan,” from a third-party attorney who had received a check of about $178,506 from Milberg Weiss and Bershad.

In July 1993, Cooperman faxed a copy of a $35.28 check he received as a member of the class that settled the case and a note saying, “Cetus settled�justice prevails!”

According to court papers, Milberg Weiss received $133 million in attorney fees from nearly 70 lawsuits in which Cooperman or several of his relatives or associates served as lead plaintiffs from 1988 to 2003. The firm paid $6.4 million in secret and illegal payments during that time to Cooperman, according to court papers.