Accused of fabricating evidence, the Miccosukee Indians have taken the extraordinary step of disclosing about 400 checks totaling more than $10 million that were cashed by their former lawyers before the tribe sued them for alleged malpractice.
The West Miami-Dade tribe recently filed copies of the checks in court to disprove the allegation by prominent South Florida attorneys Guy Lewis and Michael Tein. The pair’s lawyer said at a recent court hearing that the Miccosukees “fabricated” income tax forms “after the fact” to show they had paid their law firm such high fees from 2005-10.
Lewis and Tein have claimed their Miami law firm never received 1099 forms from the Miccosukees for any of those years. The tribe has filed copies of the forms in the court record as well, and say they were filed on time with the Internal Revenue Service.
Claiming they’ve been “smeared,” the Miccosukees on Friday filed the front and back of the check payments in a move to seek sanctions against Lewis, a one-time U.S. attorney in Miami, and Tein, a former federal prosecutor. In court papers, the tribe’s attorney accused the partners of attempting “to justify their possible failure to completely report their income” from the Miccosukees for those six years.
In a recent court hearing, tribal lawyer Bernardo Roman III took an even more aggressive stand. He accused Lewis and Tein of failing to turn over records to substantiate their work for the tribe because, he said, they were involved in a “kickback scheme” with former Miccosukee chairman Billy Cypress. Voted out of office in late 2009, Cypress had hired them and signed almost all of their check payments.
“They have no work to justify the fees, because this was a kickback scheme and now we’re calling their bluff,” Roman told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez earlier this month.
The judge, who had denied Lewis and Tein’s motion to dismiss the tribe’s malpractice suit, ordered them to turn over dozens of boxes of legal documents, billing records and other materials to show the work they did for the Miccosukees.
A Miami lawyer recently hired by Lewis and Tein said the accusation that they possibly understated their income to the IRS was “false.” But attorney Jeffrey Cohensaid he was just learning of the kickback allegation for the first time and declined to comment.
The tribe’s increasingly nasty malpractice suit, filed last April, grew out of a controversial Miami wrongful-death case involving a Miccosukee Tribe member and her father, who were represented by Lewis and Tein.
In that earlier case, the Miccosukees have accused Cypress of using the fatal car-crash dispute as cover to pay Lewis and Tein up to $4 million in legal fees as part of the tribe’s total payment for various legal services, including representing the tribe, the former chairman and other members on income tax problems.
Lewis and Tein face a sanctions hearing this fall after they were accused of committing perjury when they testified that their clients paid their legal fees in the wrongful-death case of a young mother. Key depositions of both lawyers are set for Oct. 9.
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 to the Lewis Tein law firm — to back up his allegations.
In a 2009 trial, Lewis and Tein represented Tammy Gwen Billie, the driver who killed Liliana Bermudez, 30, on the Tamiami Trail in 1998, and Jimmie Bert, Billie’s father who owned her uninsured Acura Legend.
A Miami jury issued a judgment of almost $3.2 million for the victim’s husband, Carlos Bermudez, and their teenage son, Mathew.
But after more than three years, the Bermudez family has still not collected the jury award. Both Billie and Bert have said they don’t have any money, despite each receiving yearly payments of at least $120,000 — like hundreds of other Miccosukees — from the tribe’s lucrative gambling profits.
Lewis and Tein have asserted that the tribe used their clients’ money, generated by advances or loans drawn from their gambling distributions, to pay their law firm’s fees to defend the case. Cypress, who is also being sued by the Miccosukees for allegedly stealing $26 million from the tribe, backed up the lawyers’ defense in an affidavit.
The source of the payment to their lawyers 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 Bermudez judgment.