In carrying out a massive money-laundering sting, the Tri-County task force sent millions in drug cash to cell phone outlets, computer centers and electronic game distributors scattered across Miami-Dade.
Also on the laundering list: prominent lawyers.
Mario German was one of the recipients of the money while representing a Colombia native who wanted to buy property in Palm Beach County. In one wire, German took in $78,716.
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“I’m totally shocked,” said the Boca Raton lawyer, who said he didn’t notice at the time where the funds came from.
The longtime practitioner was among at least four lawyers whose firms were sent thousands in bank wires from task force members posing as launderers during one of the state’s largest-ever money-laundering stings.
The emergence of prominent attorneys in the confidential records of the undercover cops raises questions about why the officers would be sending suspected drug cash to law firms and then not following up.
In the case of German, the purpose of the money was clear: It was for a real estate deal that was directed by a money broker working for the drug organizations in 2010. Two of the other attorneys declined to discuss the bank records that show more than $200,000 sent to the firms.
Under their code of ethics, attorneys are supposed to scrutinize the money sent to their accounts to ensure it’s not from the fruits of illegal activities. In these cases, it’s not clear what actions the lawyers took after police wired the money from 2010 through 2012.
One federal agent who specializes in laundering cases said lawyers have a greater responsibility because they are part of the justice system. “Attorneys should know better,” said John Tobon of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Third-party payments are not an accepted way of doing business.”
One attorney expressed surprise his name was in the police records.
“We’re usually pretty careful about where we accept money,” said Robert Feitel, a Washington, D.C., attorney whose firm was sent $49,000 from the task force in 2010. A former federal prosecutor, Feitel said it’s difficult to detect money from questionable sources when it’s sent from a domestic bank.
“If I got a wire from a casa de cambio [exchange house] in Mexico, I’d really be concerned,” said Feitel, who has represented well-known drug defendants.
The money was sent to the law firms after the undercover officers picked up suspected drug cash in cities across the country and deposited it into accounts opened at SunTrust in the names of shell companies. The bank was working with the undercover unit to facilitate the investigation. Since the task force did not keep detailed investigative records, it’s not clear why the law firms were on the list.
“They need this transfer urgent. Can we send it,” said one email in September 2010 to a cop posing as a money launderer. The next day, $50,000 was sent by the police, records show. The recipient on the list: the trust account of Miami attorney Jose R. Puig, who specializes in criminal defense work.
Puig did not respond to interview requests.
Another recipient is well-known Miami attorney Joaquin Perez, a former public defender and county prosecutor who has represented high-profile Colombian drug traffickers. Police records say two wires totaling nearly $45,000 were sent to a bank account under his name just days before the task force disbanded in 2012.
Perez, too, did not respond to interview requests.
Dennis Fitzgerald, an attorney and former DEA agent, said the money could be payment for any number of reasons: legal fees, or as in the case of German, funds to buy property. The issue, he said, is the money was sent by undercover police who are wiring money that came from an illegal enterprise.
In the cases of Puig and German, the money was sent to trust accounts, records state, which carry a greater burden on lawyers to know who sent the funds. Under Florida Bar rules, trusts are set up to hold money for a client. Lawyers are supposed to notify the client when the money arrives.
For years, lawyers in South Florida have been on guard when accepting fees from suspected drug dealers, partly because of laws passed in the 1980s that allowed prosecutors to clamp down on attorneys who took money that originated from drug dealing.
In high-profile cases, federal prosecutors either seized legal fees or, in some cases, arrested attorneys in what grew into a heated debate over the government’s right to fight the drug war versus the right of lawyers to fairly represent their clients under Sixth Amendment protections.
Longtime Miami defense attorney Joel Hirschhorn said despite efforts over the years to protect client rights, lawyers still have a responsibility to question the source of their fees.
“If that person’s sole source of income is drugs, then you have a problem, ” said Hirschhorn, who represented Medellín cartel figures in the 1980s. “The ethical question is, how far you have gone to understand the pedigree of the money.”
Miami lawyer Neal Sonnett said an attorney has to go to reasonable lengths to ensure that money he or she is receiving is not rooted in criminal activities. “I have an obligation to do due diligence the best I can. I’ve turned down some big fees,” said Sonnett, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Sonnett also said that just because a person is accused of drug dealing doesn’t mean the client’s entire source of income is illegal.
In the case of attorneys who were sent suspected drug cash by undercover cops, the issue may be even more complicated.
Years after getting the money, German said he has never been visited by the police to talk about the wire — or about his former client. “I’m not trying to make excuses for myself,” he said, but he thought he would have been notified by his bank or the government.
Fitzgerald, author of a textbook on police stings, said the task force should have interviewed the lawyers and even pushed to talk to the clients. The evidence that the money was tainted was overwhelming. “It’s amazing. You had cases just sitting there,” he said. “You investigate the leads that you’re handed.”