South Florida

Smuggler, sent up for 19 years, sues his lawyer. He wants refund of ‘excessive’ legal bill

For decades, countless foreign drug lords and their foot soldiers have routinely hired American lawyers to defend them against trafficking indictments in Miami.

But perhaps none has ever sued one for charging an “excessive fee” — until now.

Meet Edison Washington Prado Alava.

The former Ecuadorian fisherman, who is serving a long prison term for transporting loads of cocaine bound for the United States, is accusing his former defense attorney, Robert Feitel, of gouging him for $350,000 and doing practically nothing for the exorbitant fee, according to a lawsuit filed in Miami.

Prado now wants his money back. Feitel had worked as a Justice Department prosecutor for 22 years, targeting narco-traffickers, money launderers and other major criminals, before going into private practice in Washington, D.C., about a decade ago.

Prado hired Feitel after he had already pleaded guilty last July to a drug-distribution conspiracy charge while being represented by a different lawyer, the suit says. Prado claims Feitel promised that he could get his recommended sentence of 19 years lowered by using his influence as a former federal prosecutor.

But Feitel didn’t deliver, Prado says.

At a hearing on Thursday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Peter Lopez rejected Feitel’s motion to dismiss Prado’s breach of contract lawsuit. The judge also injected a bit of humor by sizing up Prado’s claim this way:

“You lied to me,” Lopez said, pretending to be Prado confronting Feitel in a made-up exchange. “You told me you knew Alex Acosta when you didn’t.”

The judge invoked the name of Acosta because he was the former U.S. attorney in Miami. Acosta, who announced on Friday that he was resigning as labor secretary in the Trump administration, has been in the news this week because of widespread criticism of his decision not to prosecute multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein 12 years ago on sex-trafficking charges. Epstein was arrested on those charges by New York federal authorities last Saturday.

In Prado’s case, the defendant said he felt betrayed by Feitel after being sentenced last December to 19 years. The suit says that prison term had already been negotiated in a plea deal between his original defense attorney, Rick Diaz, and federal prosecutors in Miami.

In the end, Prado claims that Feitel did an “estimated 20 hours of work in the case,” including writing a seven-page sentencing memorandum.

“It was a cameo appearance,” said Diaz, who continued to represent Prado in the criminal case and is now his lawyer in the civil suit against Feitel.

But there’s more to Prado’s arrangement with Feitel than a fight over fees. In the suit, Prado claims he paid Feitel the full $350,000 in cash by converting Colombian pesos to dollars on that country’s “black market peso exchange.” U.S. authorities have long considered Colombia’s BMPE an illegal currency exchange for moving drug profits and laundering money.

Feitel’s lawyer in the civil case, John Lukacs, declined to comment after Thursday’s hearing because he said he needed to consult with his client, who was not present. Reached later in the day, Lukacs said he was going to speak with Feitel but did not get back to a Herald reporter for comment.

Prado’s accusation is not the first time that the former Justice Department prosecutor has come under scrutiny for accepting potentially tainted money as a legal fee.

In a 2015 investigative story, the Miami Herald reported that more than $100,000 in drug proceeds belonging to criminal organizations was sent to Feitel’s law firm in Washington, D.C., by South Florida undercover police officers posing as money launderers to infiltrate drug groups. The undercover police picked up the cash in New York and sent the money from a U.S. bank to Feitel at the behest of criminal organizations in a series of payments that were never questioned by the former prosecutor.

At the time, Feitel told a Herald reporter that he was unaware of the money sent to his office between 2010 and 2012, not long after he had left the Justice Department.

Feitel also said that money sent from a U.S. bank like the one used by the undercover police was more difficult to screen than funds from overseas exchange houses, such as the black market peso exchange in Colombia. “How was I supposed to know” the money was tainted? Feitel said at the time. “That would have been difficult.”

The Herald’s spotlight on Feitel recast the image of the former prosecutor, who was condemned by some defense attorneys in Miami’s legal community. The reason: Before leaving the Justice Department, Feitel had led a money-laundering case against one of Miami’s most prominent defense lawyers, Ben Kuehne.

Kuehne had been hired by defense attorney Roy Black to review the legal fees from his client, Medellin cartel leader Fabio Ochoa. Kuehne found the fees were not from the drug trade. However, Feitel disagreed and charged Kuehne, a former president of the Dade County Bar Association, with money laundering in 2008.

Feitel’s case, however, was thrown out the following year by a Miami federal judge and appellate court. They found that a money-laundering law had been amended by Congress to protect lawyers from prosecution when accepting fees from defendants charged with drug trafficking.

The only exception would be if the lawyers accept their clients’ money knowing it comes from illegal activities.