A rare federal money-laundering prosecution of a prominent Florida attorney has prompted concerns that other defense lawyers may no longer represent high-profile criminals for fear of being prosecuted themselves.
Benedict Kuehne, one of Al Gore's lawyers during the 2000 Florida recount, has been accused of money laundering for approving $5.2 million in legal fees paid by Fabio Ochoa, formerly one of the leaders of the Medellin drug cartel, to Ochoa's well-known defense attorney, Roy Black. Much of the money was allegedly derived from drug sales, prosecutors contend.
The case in federal court in Miami is being closely watched in legal circles around the country both because of its unusual circumstances -- it is believed to be the first federal prosecution of an attorney for vetting the source of legal fees -- and because of Kuehne's sterling reputation in the Miami legal community.
"It's an extreme case that represents the government's attempt to expand money laundering laws as broadly as possible and at the same time to send a message to lawyers," said Kendall Coffey, the former U.S. Attorney in Miami, who has worked with Kuehne.
"There are those in the Justice Department who believe that serious drug dealers and other serious criminals should not have access to top-flight lawyers," he said.
That belief was echoed by some other former prosecutors around the country. "The government's position is that people who are notorious criminals shouldn't be able to acquire a high-profile lawyer," said Buddy Parker, a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta who specialized in money laundering cases.
A Department of Justice spokeswoman declined to comment on the case, as did Kuehne and his attorneys.
Kuehne was not the initial target of the investigation. The case stems from the prosecution of Ochoa, who was convicted in 2003 of smuggling more than 30 tons of cocaine into the United States.
Black, Ochoa's attorney, hired Kuehne in 2001 to vet $5.2 million in legal fees to make sure they were not drug proceeds. Black, who was never charged and is not under investigation, is a high-profile criminal defense lawyer whose clients have included William Kennedy Smith and Rush Limbaugh.
According to an indictment unsealed earlier this year, Kuehne was paid about $200,000 for his work, at least some of it allegedly from the money he was vetting. In a series of memos, he told Black the money, initially wired to a trust account controlled by Kuehne, was from legitimate sources, and not drug money. He then gave the money to Black and his associates.
According to the indictment, however, nearly $1.8 million of that money came from fake bank accounts set up by undercover law enforcement agents as part of investigations into money brokers that help drug cartels launder money.
The indictment claims that Kuehne, Gloria Flores Velez, Ochoa's personal accountant, and Oscar Saldarriaga Ochoa, one of Fabio Ochoa's Colombian attorneys, knew that the money was tainted drug money and created fake documents to claim that it came from legitimate sources.
In a statement at the time the indictment was unsealed, Black and several other lawyers who were assisting in Ochoa's defense, said, "During the course of Ben's work on this matter, the lawyers involved in the Ochoa defense saw nothing to suggest that Ben was doing anything other than his typically careful, factual research and legal analysis."