At the hearing, both lawyers asserted that the defendants’ legal bills were paid as the result of a “fraudulent scheme” by its former chairman, Billy Cypress, who was ousted from his long-held post in early 2010.
The tribe has since sued Cypress, accusing him of embezzling $26 million from the Miccosukees. The tribe has also sued Lewis and Tein, who once represented the Miccosukees and Cypress on tax and other legal issues, in separate state malpractice and federal racketeering cases.
The Bermudez family’s wrongful-death case has sparked hostile litigation between Rodriguez, the Miccosukee Tribe and Lewis and Tein.
In April, the two prominent Miami defense lawyers were slapped with a $50,000 fine after Dresnick, the judge, decided he had originally sanctioned them too little for a post-judgment violation over their failure to promptly turn over certain financial records of their two Miccosukee clients.
The judge raised the fine from $3,500 after realizing he had made a mistake when he initially found the partners’ legal fees were not that high and their bills were not paid by the Miccosukee Tribe.
Dresnick said the $3.1 million in fees charged by Lewis and Tein to represent the two Miccosukee Indians in the fatal car-crash case made “my eyes spin in their sockets.”
“I’m shocked by the amount of these fees,” said Dresnick, a veteran judge who presided over a three-day sanctions hearing and ordered the pair to pay the fine to Rodriguez. “I’m just flabbergasted.”
Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, and Tein, an ex-federal prosecutor in his office, were accused of committing perjury after they testified at a previous sanctions hearing in August 2011 that their two clients actually paid their legal fees — not the Miccosukee Tribe.
Both defense lawyers had told the judge back then that any sanctions fine would come out of their pockets, not their clients’ or the tribe’s.
But Lewis and Tein made those assertions before the Bermudez family’s lawyer discovered $3.1 million in checks issued directly to their law firm by the tribe for the defense of the two Miccosukee clients. The tribe’s lawyer, Roman, said he turned them over to Rodriguez after the August 2011 sanctions hearing because the Miccosukee’s new leader, Colley Billie, and other members believed Lewis and Tein were hiding from the judge evidence of who actually paid them, and how much, for their legal services.
“They dropped this gift on your doorstep,” the judge told Rodriguez Friday, “because they wanted to use you to hurt Lewis and Tein.”
In their defense, Lewis and Tein previously argued that their Miccosukee clients borrowed money from the tribe to pay the legal fees.
Ultimately, Dresnick found in a final order that Lewis and Tein “did not commit perjury, did not engage in fraud on the court … and did not fail in their obligation of candor” at the previous sanctions hearing.
“But had I known [then] what I know now, the sanction amount that I originally ordered would have been $50,000 and not [$3,500],” Dresnick said from the bench in April. “So I’m raising it to $50,000.”
After the judge’s decision, the Florida Bar’s grievance committee launched an ethics investigation into Lewis and Tein, according to spokeswoman Francine Walker.
The source of the legal payments to Lewis and Tein carries importance.
If the funds came from the tribe as opposed to the law team’s clients, Billie and Bert, it means there indeed was more than enough money available to pay the outstanding 2009 civil judgment.