Courts

Miami attorney accused of perjury contradicts former Miccosukee clients’ testimony

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

A former defense attorney for two Miccosukee Indians who lost a fatal car-crash lawsuit testified Tuesday that, contrary to what the West Miami-Dade tribe and his former clients have said, he and his law partner were not paid millions of dollars by the tribe.

Michael Tein, a former federal prosecutor, testified at his perjury-sanctions hearing that his Miccosukee clients, Tammy Gwen Billie and her father, Jimmie Bert, paid his law firm’s legal bills. On Monday, Billie and Bert testified they didn’t personally pay Tein’s firm about $3 million in legal fees.

Tein also testified that he regularly reviewed his firm’s invoices and legal strategy with Billie and Bert — a claim the former clients also contradicted the previous day.

“I had a longstanding relationship with these individuals,” Tein testified. “I had so many conversations with them.”

Tein and his partner, Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, are accused of lying to a judge about who paid them to defend the two Miccosukee Indians in the civil car-crash trial in 2009, which resulted in a $3.2 million judgment against Billie and Bert.

The defense attorneys are accused of committing perjury when they testified two years later that their clients actually paid their legal fees — not the tribe. Tein reiterated that point Tuesday, noting again the tribe was not the client.

The source of the legal payments to the defense lawyers is important. If the funds came from the Miccosukees, as opposed to Billie and Bert, it means there indeed was more than enough money available to pay an outstanding civil judgment of $3.2 million to the family of the car-crash victim.

Billie and Bert have refused to pay, insisting they cannot afford it, even though each receives as much as $160,000 a year from the tribe’s casino profits.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick is considering civil contempt sanctions against Tein and Lewis, accusing them of lack of candor, perjury and misrepresentation.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the judge asked Tein how he could “account” for his former clients’ testimony the day before that they didn’t “remember any of those conversations” about legal bills with him.

“I was sad to hear that,” Tein told the judge, then suggested that his former clients were under pressure from the Miccosukee Tribe because of the high stakes of the litigation.

Tein also testified that after Billie testified Monday, she hugged him and told him that she loved him and she was sorry. Tein also said that he told her that he loved her.

“I forgive her for what she did’’ Monday. Tein testified. “I don’t think she was herself.”

On Monday, Billie testified she did not take out a loan from the tribe to pay for her defense fees, as Lewis and Tein claim. And she said she was unaware who paid Lewis and Tein to represent her and her father, Bert, at the 2009 wrongful-death trial.

Bert, Billie’s father, gave similar testimony Monday, saying he “guessed” the tribe had paid his daughter’s legal bills. But Bert also acknowledged that yearly deductions were taken out by the Miccosukees from his daughter’s share of the tribe’s distribution of gambling profits.

Bernardo Roman III, the tribe’s general counsel, testified Monday that those deductions, totaling about $1.5 million over the course of a decade, were used to pay for Billie’s criminal defense lawyer, Michael Diaz — not her civil lawyers, Lewis and Tein. Roman also said that Billie’s father did seek financial assistance from the tribe in 1998-01 to help his daughter pay for her criminal defense.

Lewis’ and Tein’s attorney, Paul Calli, asserted there was a loan arrangement between the tribe and Billie. He cited a Miccosukee financial statement that he said showed some of those deductions reimbursed the tribe for paying Billie’s legal bills to the Lewis Tein law firm.

The court hearing, which continues Wednesday with expected testimony from Lewis, pitted their attorney, Calli, against Ramon M. Rodriguez. He’s the lawyer for a Miami-Dade family that hasn’t been able to collect the $3.2 million judgment for the wrongful death of 30-year-old Liliana Bermudez, who died in 1998 after Billie crashed her father’s car into Bermudez’s vehicle on the Tamiami Trail.

Earlier this month, Dresnick said in an order that “one of the matters of concern” to him is the defense attorneys’ “obligation of candor to the court.” Dresnick raised that issue because the Miccosukee Tribe issued 61 checks directly to the Lewis Tein law firm for $3.1 million in the representation of the two tribal members — evidence that the defense attorneys never disclosed at a previous sanctions hearing in August 2011.

“Your honor, they never told the court about any of this,” Rodriguez told the judge Monday.

Calli apologized that Lewis and Tein did not appreciate the judge’s concern about the source of their legal fees when they testified during the earlier sanctions hearing.

“Guy Lewis and Michael Tein told you the truth and never intended to mislead you,” Calli told the judge.

At the previous sanctions hearing, Tein testified that his and Lewis’ client was not the Miccosukee Tribe. “The defendants have been responsible for our fees and they ... had been paying our fees,” Tein swore to the judge. Lewis agreed with his partner’s testimony.

The Miccosukee Tribe, which underwent a major political shift with the ouster of former Chairman Billy Cypress in early 2010, was outraged by Tein’s testimony — and turned over the 61 checks to the opposing lawyer, Rodriguez.

The perjury allegation was lodged after the judge sanctioned Lewis and Tein for $3,500 in September 2011 for failing to turn over financial information to the Bermudez family’s lawyer in the post-judgment phase of the case.

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