The Miccosukee Tribe has jumped into a controversial Miami wrongful-death case, accusing former Chairman Billy Cypress of using the long-running dispute as cover to pay lawyers Guy Lewis and Michael Tein up to $4 million in legal fees — considerably more than the tribe first calculated.
The West Miami-Dade tribe claims in a new court filing that Cypress “diverted” those payments directly to Lewis and Tein under the “pretext’’ of working on general Miccosukee legal matters, without the “knowledge or consent” of the tribal government.
Lewis and Tein, both former federal prosecutors, face a sanctions hearing this fall after they were accused of committing perjury when they testified that their clients, two members of the tribe, actually paid their legal fees in the wrongful-death case of a young mother.
At a 2009 trial, Tammy Gwen Billie, the driver who killed Liliana Bermudez, 30, on the Tamiami Trail, and Jimmie Bert, Billie’s father who owned her uninsured Acura Legend, admitted fault in the 1998 fatal crash. The Miami jury issued a nearly $3.2 million judgment for the victim’s husband, Carlos Bermudez, and their teen-age son, Mathew.
But after waiting three years, the Bermudez family has still not collected the jury award. Both Billie and Bert have said they don’t have any money to pay the family, despite each receiving yearly payments of at least $120,000 — like hundreds of other Miccosukees — from the tribe’s lucrative gambling profits.
“Tammy Gwen Billie and Jimmie Bert have made a mockery of Liliana’s death,’’ Carlos Bermudez, 44, a truck driver, said Thursday.
Both Billie and Bert have caused considerable confusion about the payment of their legal fees. They said in May 2010 depositions that they had no idea how Lewis and Tein were paid, and they had not footed the bill. Eight months later, the daughter and father changed their story, saying in sworn court statements that they — not the tribe — had paid their lawyers’ legal fees.
The source of the payment is important because, if it came from the tribe as opposed to the father and daughter, it means there indeed was more than enough money available to pay the outstanding Bermudez judgment.
For their part, Lewis and Tein — who have been sued separately by the Miccosukee Tribe for legal malpractice — scoffed at the new allegations. The tribe’s filing represents the first time it has inserted itself into the contentious wrongful-death litigation.
The tribe’s “motivation for making these false and outrageous claims is transparent,” the law partners responded in their court filing Thursday. “Suffice it to say, [we] deny them.”
Earlier this month, Lewis, a former U.S. attorney, and Tein, a fellow prosecutor in the Miami office, obtained a judge’s approval to withdraw as defense lawyers for Billie and Bert, citing “communications problems” with their clients.
The perjury allegations surfaced last year after the Bermudez family’s lawyer, Ramon M. Rodriguez, accused both attorneys and their clients of lying when they asserted the Miccosukee Tribe did not foot their huge legal bill. Rodriguez had obtained 61 checks totaling $3.1 million — made out by the tribe directly to the Lewis Tein law firm — to back up his allegations of perjury and misrepresentation.
Rodriguez received the checks from the Miccosukee Tribe and its longtime lawyer, Bernardo Roman III. “The tribe made a determination to give out these checks as it felt that there was a fraud being perpetrated on the [Miami-Dade] Circuit Court,” Roman said at court hearing in April.
A year ago, Tein swore to Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick that clients Billie and Bert— not the tribe — had paid their legal bills.
In court papers, Lewis and Tein said that contrary to Rodriguez’s allegations, Tein did not “provide false testimony” and Lewis did not “misrepresent facts.”
In their filing, the lawyers said Billie and Bert paid the legal fees with their own money through the Miccosukee Tribe, which issued the checks on their behalf. They said the tribe made the payments from their gambling distributions or as loans against future distributions.
Cypress — the former chairman who was ousted in late 2009 and recently sued by the tribe amid allegations of stealing $26 million from the Miccosukees — backed up the lawyers’ claim in an affidavit filed last October.
“The Berts and Ms. Billie were solely responsible for Lewis Tein’s legal fees,” wrote Cypress, who has been personally represented by the two lawyers for income-tax and other legal problems.
But in its latest filing, the tribe says that Billie and Bert were unaware that Cypress was “misappropriating’’ millions of dollars to Lewis and Tein to pay for their defense.