Miccosukee Indian disputes lawyers’ account about source of legal payments in fatal car-crash case

A tribe member testified he never obtained advances or loans from the Miccosukees to pay his legal fees — putting him at odds with the position taken by his former attorneys, Guy Lewis and Michael Tein.

11/27/2012 5:56 PM

11/29/2012 12:52 PM

A Miccosukee Tribe member testified he did not pay millions of dollars to his former defense attorneys in a fatal car-crash lawsuit, putting him at odds with the position they have taken in the long-running case.

Jimmie Bert also denied obtaining advances or loans from the tribe to pay his legal fees — contradicting the assertions of his former attorneys, who collected more than $3 million defending him and his daughter.

Bert, who admitted fault at trial along with his daughter, says he never saw the bills from Miami attorneys Guy Lewis and Michael Tein and paid only a small fraction of their legal fees years ago.

Bert’s testimony, delivered in a deposition on Friday, reversed his own earlier account and appears to undermine the lawyers’ position that they were paid the high fees by their clients — not the Miccosukee Tribe.

Lewis, a former U.S. attorney, and Tein, also an ex-federal prosecutor, are facing potential perjury sanctions for allegedly lying about who paid them. The lawyers maintain the tribe advanced money or made loans to Bert and his daughter, Tammy Gwen Billie, so the defendants could pay their legal bills.

But in a separate sworn statement filed this week, Bert recanted his January 2011 affidavit prepared by the Lewis Tein law firm in which he had said he was “responsible” for and was “paying” his legal fees. Bert said he did not understand the prior affidavit because the law firm did not have it translated or interpreted for him into his native Miccosukee language.

“Is that [2011] statement that you were paying Lewis and Tein true?” Bert’s lawyer, Jose Herrera, asked him in the new sworn statement. Bert replied: “No.”

Asked who was paying his legal bills to Lewis and Tein, Bert responded: “The tribe.”

And when asked if he had a loan agreement with the Miccosukees to pay the legal fees, he said: “As far as I know, there’s no agreement.”

The source of the legal payments to the lawyers carries significant weight. If the funds came from the tribe as opposed to the father and daughter, it means there indeed was more than enough money available to pay an outstanding civil judgment of nearly $3.2 million. The pair have refused to pay, insisting they cannot afford it.

Billie, who served time in prison as a result of the car-crash case, has failed to show up for a deposition and to turn over key documents to the attorney for the victim’s family. This month, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick found Billie in contempt of court, triggering a warrant to bring her to his court.

The victim’s attorney, Ramon M. Rodriguez, is still trying to obtain important evidence from Lewis and Tein, including their retainer agreement with their Miccosukee clients.

In his deposition, Bert said he signed the retainer agreement with their law firm, but it was not translated or interpreted for him. Lewis and Tein said they cannot find the 2005 contract.

Bert also testified that he was unaware that Lewis and Tein collected about $950,000 in legal fees after a Miami-Dade jury returned a verdict against him and his daughter in July 2009 — money that could have gone toward paying the judgment.

In their defense, Lewis and Tein’s lawyer, Paul Calli, recently deposed the tribe’s assistant chairman, Jasper Nelson. Nelson testified this month that the tribe approved a loan for Billie and Bert to pay their legal expenses. Asked by Calli if he had “any reason to believe [the] Lewis Tein [firm] ever did anything wrong to the Miccosukee Tribe,” Nelson replied: “No.”

Bert’s testimony comes more than three years after he and his daughter were ordered by a Miami-Dade jury to pay the financial award to the survivors of a woman who was killed in a head-on collision more than a decade ago.

At the 2009 trial, Lewis and Tein represented Billie, the driver who killed Liliana Bermudez, 30, on the Tamiami Trail, and Bert, who owned her uninsured Acura Legend. The defendants admitted fault at trial, so the jury only decided damages. Ever since, the victim’s husband, Carlos Bermudez, a local truck driver, and their teen-age son, Mathew, have futilely tried to collect the judgment.

Both Bert and his daughter have insisted they have no money of their own to pay the award. Each collected $160,000 a year — like hundreds of other Miccosukees — from the tribe’s profitable gambling operation at the west Miami-Dade casino.

The perjury allegations surfaced last year after the Bermudez family’s lawyer, 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.

During a prior sanctions hearing in August 2011, Tein swore to Dresnick, the judge, that their two tribal clients, Billie and Bert, paid their legal bills.

Early last year, both clients submitted court affidavits asserting they had paid Lewis and Tein’s legal fees — a claim now denied by Bert in his recent deposition under oath and in his new sworn statement. Bert said his January 2011 affidavit was prepared by attorneys with the Lewis Tein law firm, and that it was not translated or interpreted for him. As a result, Bert said he did not understand the prior affidavit, according to the statement given to his lawyer, Herrera, last week.

“Now, is it fair to say that you did not understand what you were signing when you signed this affidavit?” Herrera asked his client.

Bert replied: “Yes.”

His daughter also signed an affidavit in October 2011 to back up Lewis’s and Tein’s claim that she and her father borrowed money from the Miccosukees to pay their legal bills.

The fallout from the Bermudez wrongful-death case has not only led to the perjury complaint, but also to state malpractice and federal racketeering suits filed by the Miccosukees against Lewis, Tein, former tribe chairman Billy Cypress and others.

The Miccosukees claim Lewis and Tein were paid a total of nearly $11 million for mostly “fictitious” legal work authorized by the tribe’s former longtime chairman, Billy Cypress, who was personally represented by the two lawyers.

The tribe has also sued Cypress, accusing him of stealing $26 million by blowing tribal money on trips to Las Vegas, chartering private jets, splurging on upscale restaurants, and buying real estate.

In the perjury dispute, Cypress has stood by Lewis and Tein, saying in an affidavit that Bille and Bert were “responsible” for their legal fees and that he “directed the tribe to write checks to pay” for their defense. Cypress swore those payments were “charged against” the clients’ gambling distributions or charged as “loans” against their “future distributions.”

But in a deposition taken this month, Cypress said he was unaware of his sworn statement regarding the specifics of the tribe’s loan agreement with Lewis and Tein’s clients. “That I didn’t know,” Cypress testified in mid-November.

And when asked whether the Miccosukee defendants ever repaid the tribe, Cypress replied: “I believe not at this point in time. ... I don’t know.”

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