Heat is on Attorneys in Drug Trafficking Cases Florida lawyer is
accused of taking 'dirty money' Julie Kay Miami Daily Business Review
May 25, 2001
When prominent South Florida criminal defense attorney Joel Hirschhorn
announced at a 1989 meeting of the National Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers that he would no longer represent accused drug
traffickers, he was seen as a traitor by his colleagues. Now, he's
considered a visionary.
Hirschhorn, a partner at Hirschhorn & Bieber in Coral Gables, Fla.,
who made much of his living representing Medellin drug cartel figures
1980s, says he saw the writing on the wall when the government started
seizing lawyers' fees as forfeiture funds. But he never dreamed
federal prosecutors would start putting defense lawyers into prison
for accepting fees to represent those accused of drug dealing and
To the dismay of the defense bar, that's become a fairly common
occurrence across the country, particularly in Miami.
In the latest case, criminal defense attorney Neil Taylor is now on
trial in U.S. District Court in Miami on charges of money laundering,
conspiracy to obstruct justice and filing false tax returns in
connection with accepting legal fees to represent an accused drug
dealer. Taylor is charged with taking more than $1 million in illicit
fees from accused drug lords Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta, in
violation of a restraining order that froze the two men's assets, then
hiding the source of the money on his tax forms.
When accepting payments of more than $10,000, all businesses,
including law firms, are required to file Internal Revenue Service
forms detailing names and full identification of those paying. Taylor,
say prosecutors, conspired with the accused drug traffickers to make
up a phony name and driver license for Wilfredo Alvarez, who was a
courier for Falcon and Magluta, and who allegedly paid Taylor's fee.
Taylor's attorney, Robert Josefsberg, a partner at Podhurst Orseck
Josefsberg in Miami, denies the charges.
Prosecutors have accused Falcon and Magluta in court of operating a $2
billion drug trafficking business. They allegedly spent $25 million on
attorneys' fees through the
1990s. They were acquitted in 1996, but a jury foreman was later
charged with taking a bribe in that trial. Falcon and Magluta, who
remain behind bars, are facing a new federal indictment alleging
conspiracy to intimidate and bribe witnesses.
Taylor's trial, which began last week, is at its midpoint, with the
government expected to wrap up its case by today. He is the fourth
lawyer -- out of nearly 40 who represented Falcon and Magluta -- to be
prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami. The other three --
Don Ferguson, Leonard Mark Dachs and Richard Martinez -- all were
"This has had a chilling effect on criminal defense lawyers," says
Richard Sharpstein, another criminal defense attorney who used to
specialize in drug cases. "I and most lawyers will not go near cases
where the fees are questionable, 'cause they're absolutely not worth
WEAPON IN THE DRUG WAR
The U.S. Department of Justice started clamping down on lawyers who
represent alleged drug dealers in the early 1980s by seizing their
fees as forfeiture funds. The crackdown was prompted by fear among
tough-on-drugs politicians and law enforcement officials that the
government was losing the war on illegal narcotics because cocaine and
marijuana kingpins were hiring high-priced lawyers and winning
In the mid-1980s, Congress passed tough money laundering laws, the
Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and the Money Laundering Act of 1986,
which gave federal prosecutors powerful new weapons in the narcotics
war. It enabled them to put anyone who took money originating from
drug trafficking or other illegal activities in prison.
But some defense attorneys say these statutes were never intended to
be used against attorneys representing defendants in these cases. They
point to an amendment, passed by Congress in 1994 after heavy lobbying
by criminal defense lawyers, that excludes funds used "for the right
to representation as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment" from
consideration in money laundering cases.
Barry Sabin, the First Assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, declined to
comment for this article, saying it would be inappropriate while the
Taylor case is under way. But in the past, federal prosecutors have
denied they are targeting defense lawyers in an effort to prevent drug
dealers and white-collar criminals from hiring top legal talent. They
have insisted that they simply go after anyone who takes "dirty
money," including real estate developers, bankers and other business
Defense lawyers are dubious. Miami lawyer Neal Sonnett, who
represented Don Ferguson, says a senior Justice Department official
recently told him: "We hope to make it impossible for any drug dealer
to hire a lawyer." Sonnett says he was "flabbergasted."
Indeed, Mark Rubino, the Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting Taylor,
sent this stark message to drug dealers in his opening statement last
week: "If you do not have the money to hire a lawyer, the court will
hire a lawyer for you. You can't use your dirty money to hire a
If scaring lawyers out of representing criminal defendants was indeed
the Justice Department's goal, the feds seem to have succeeded.
Defense lawyers say few prominent practitioners will touch drug cases
any more -- or at least will admit to it. "Criminal defense attorneys
are an endangered species," Hirschhorn says. Another prominent
criminal defense lawyer, Steve Bronis, a partner with Zuckerman
Spaeder in Miami, says he hasn't accepted a drug case in seven years.
A broader problem, according to the South Florida defense bar, is that
the government also is scrutinizing legal fees paid by those charged
with white-collar crimes such as health care fraud and securities
In 1998, Hirschhorn battled federal prosecutors in Orlando, Fla., over
the source of legal fees paid to him by a man accused of defrauding an
insurance company out of $380 million. Hirschhorn ultimately convinced
prosecutors that the source of the funds was the client's refinancing
of his house and lawful wire transfers. Hirschhorn's fees, which
reached seven figures, still are undergoing scrutiny by a receiver for
the insurance company.
Reuben Cahn, chief assistant to the federal public defender in Miami,
angrily argues that the U.S. Attorney's pre-conviction seizure of
defendants' assets and its targeting of defense attorneys essentially
is forcing wealthy defendants to turn to public defenders for
representation. The problem, he says, is that the P.D.'s office is
supposed to represent the indigent and already is stretched thin.
"It's galling," Cahn says. "The U.S. Attorney's office has
221 regular attorneys and
40 special attorneys. We have 49 lawyers. It's a struggle to provide
good representation to everyone."
To make sure the feds won't object to their collecting legal fees from
"hot" clients, several criminal defense attorneys say they routinely
meet with the line prosecutor in the case before accepting the client.
But that is no guarantee of safe passage. In his opening statement,
prosecutor Rubino acknowledged that Neil Taylor had met beforehand
with the prosecutor in the Falcon/Magluta case to discuss his fees
before taking on representation of the two defendants. But Taylor
still was prosecuted.
Defense lawyers have differing views of Taylor's prosecution. Some
chalk it up to an obsession by the U.S. Attorney's office with the
Falcon/Magluta case. But others hint at bad blood between Taylor and
Paul Pelletier, chief of the economic crimes division of the U.S.
Attorney's office. Taylor had filed two internal misconduct complaints
at the Justice Department against Pelletier, as well as two complaints
with the Florida Bar.
Sharpstein finds the government's prosecution of Taylor "highly
offensive." He argues that Taylor complied with every aspect of the
IRS reporting requirements, not only identifying couriers but also
writing Magluta's name on IRS reporting forms.
FEELING THEIR PAIN
The defense bar says recent U.S. Attorneys, including U.S. Attorney
Guy Lewis and his predecessors, Tom Scott and Kendall Coffey, have
been very open to discussing the fee issue with defense attorneys.
"Guy takes a long, hard look at investigating lawyers," says Bronis.
"He truly feels the angst that the bar feels when these cases are
The real problem, defense lawyers contend, is that line prosecutors
dig in their heels and refuse to drop cases against attorneys.
Several of the lawyers also complain that the U.S. Attorney's office
in Miami is selective in targeting lawyers, and won't go after the
most prominent figures in the defense bar.
But despite the threat of having their fees seized and facing criminal
charges and disbarment, some defense lawyers say they won't be
intimidated into giving up representation of clients in need of
"I'm proud to be a defense lawyer," said Josefsberg in his emotional
opening statement in Taylor's trial. "I'm proud to represent the
Constitution. This case is about being a criminal defense lawyer. In
China and Cuba, you still can't get one."
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