In the roughly 37 hours George Zimmerman spent talking on the phone during his first stint in jail, there are several minutes that could land his defense attorney in hot water.
One call suggests defense lawyer Mark O’Mara knew from the start that tens of thousands of dollars in donations had begun pouring in to help Zimmerman.
In a phone call recorded April 14 between Zimmerman and brother-in-law Scott Wilson, the two discuss the new defense lawyer and the attorney’s vision for an upcoming bond hearing. Zimmerman twice said that he told O’Mara that he tried to transfer $37,000 from his online legal defense fund site, but could not complete the transaction because PayPal rules prevent transfers larger than $10,000.
But in court later at Zimmerman’s bond hearing, O’Mara told the judge his client was broke.
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O’Mara told The Herald that he does not recall the conversation Zimmerman referred to and would not risk his law license lying to the court.
“He said he’s going to have me declared indigent,” Zimmerman told Wilson on the call. “I told him I didn’t think that would be possible, because there was one sizable transfer I tried to make. It got stopped. You know, $37. He said: ‘Well that doesn’t matter. Right now you’re not working. You’re not providing an income for your family. You’re probably not going to be employable for the rest of your life.’”
Wilson, the man O’Mara identified as the person who administered Zimmerman’s online fund-raising drive, at one point asks Zimmerman whether the lawyer knows “the volume” of the donations that came in from the public. Zimmerman said O’Mara knew about the attempted transfer of $37,000, but not any more than that.
They agreed to keep it that way.
In April, O’Mara filed a motion saying Zimmerman had no job and no “significant financial assets or savings.” Zimmerman’s wife testified the couple had no income at all that she knew of.
The judge granted a $150,000 bond. Days later, O’Mara declared to the court that Zimmerman had actually amassed a small fortune in donations.
At the time, O’Mara said he had failed to press his client about how much money he had raised, and said he learned about the money in a conversation discussing how Zimmerman needed to take down his Internet sites.
That’s when prosecutors reviewed Zimmerman’s jailhouse calls and bank records and found that he, his wife and sister had worked with Wilson to transfer all the donations out of Zimmerman’s name and into cash.
Zimmerman and his wife were recorded talking in a simple code to refer to large amounts of money. “Eight dollars” meant $80,000.
Furious, Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester sent Zimmerman back to jail. A new bail hearing was held in June, and Zimmerman was released on a $1 million bond. His wife, Shellie, was charged with perjury.
“I recall now some conversation of a transfer, but I don’t recall a specific amount,” O’Mara told The Miami Herald. “If it was $10,000 or $100,000 or $30,000, I would have remembered. It’s not the type of thing you would risk your license to practice law over.”
He stressed that the jailhouse recording shows that Zimmerman was keeping him “at arm’s length” regarding the money he had raised. O’Mara said he does not think the recording is clear-cut about whether Zimmerman told him about the money.
“I would have remembered $37,000,” he said. “I can’t imagine not remembering. It puts my credibility on the line.”
Critics have questioned O’Mara’s role in the plot, wondering whether he was duped by his client or if he misled the court.
Zimmerman’s wife testified at the first bond hearing that it was her brother-in-law who managed the online donations and she did not know how much money had been raised. But O’Mara did not call Wilson, who lives in Maryland, to testify.
In another jailhouse call, Zimmerman calls his wife, who is at a meeting with O’Mara and Zimmerman’s family. He mentions that the lawyer suggested he file for indigence, which would allow the state to pay his extra legal costs, such as hiring experts.
“I told him that we received some small contribution, and he said it doesn’t matter,” Zimmerman said. “No, it doesn’t,” Shellie replied. “He’s kind of talked about that.”
If a lawyer files a motion saying his client was indigent and knew otherwise, experts say he could be subject to serious reprimand, including suspension or disbarment. No complaint has been filed with the Florida Bar. The prosecutor, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda, told the judge at Zimmerman’s second bond hearing that O’Mara acted as a responsible officer of the court when he reported the money Zimmerman had raised.
But the State Attorney’s office declined to comment Tuesday on whether De la Rionda had heard the jailhouse tape that seems to show the defense lawyer knew about his client’s money.
Miami attorney Andy Berman, who has represented lawyers in the past, said it “does not take much” to trigger a Florida Bar investigation.
“Without deciding there was any misrepresentation — speaking in theoretical terms — if he knew the guy was not indigent at the time he filed a motion saying he was indigent, he would be committing fraud, deceit and misrepresentation,” Berman said. “In a high-profile case like this one, it could get you suspended or disbarred.”
The jailhouse calls also show Zimmerman had no shortage of attorneys to choose from. He told his brother-in-law that a benefactor offered to pay his entire legal defense on the condition that the legal team include Jose Baez, the lawyer who represented accused child killer Casey Anthony, who was acquitted of murder.
Word of the offer came from Zimmerman’s neighbor, Frank Taaffe, who mentioned someone with the initials “S.H.” People watching the case closely believe S.H. to be Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity. The network denied Tuesday that Hannity ever offered to pay Zimmerman’s legal tab, and Taaffe won’t confirm the TV star’s involvement.
Taaffe told The Herald Tuesday that a high profile person called him saying they represented a group of people who wanted Baez to take the case.
Taaffe won’t say who the call was from or identify the group. Baez did not return a call for comment.
In many of the jailhouse calls, Zimmerman worried about the logistics of getting a court hearing to set his bail; but he also agonized over the details of finding a safe and secret location in which to live once he was released.
Fluent in Spanish, in one call he lamented to his sister that their parents did not give him a proper Hispanic name like “Jorge.” If America had understood he was Latino, he said, the entire ugly affair over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin could have been avoided.
Zimmerman is charged with second degree murder for the Feb. 26 killing of the Miami Gardens teenager. The charges came only after weeks of protests by civil rights activists, people who Zimmerman said wrongly believed him to be “white.”
After Zimmerman was first arrested, on April 12, he complained several times that he had not received his anti-anxiety medication.
“I don’t want to think about not having my anxiety medicine because that will give me anxiety,” Zimmerman told his sister.