Money-Laundering Prosecution Worries Lawyers

Lawyers for Flores and Saldarriaga, who have both moved from Colombia to Miami while the case is pending, said their clients were not guilty. "She acted in good faith throughout this whole thing and never dreamed she would be in this position," said Henry Bell, Flores' lawyer.

Saldarriaga's lawyer, Joaquin Mendez, said Saldarriaga played a minor role in the case and spent most of his time on Ochoa's defense, not on vetting the money. "We're scratching our heads wondering why they decided to bring this prosecution," he said.

Kuehne attributed $2.3 million of the legal fees to a man named Hernando Saravia, according to the indictment. Of that, $1.8 million were drug proceeds, the indictment says, and were sent to Kuehne from undercover investigators.

In letters to Black, Kuehne said the $1.8 million was from Saravia, whom he described as a reputable businessman in the flower and gem businesses. According to the indictment, Kuehne attached what prosecutors say was a forged letter from Saravia verifying the source of the money.

Saravia is allegedly a money broker who, as first reported by the Miami Herald, is expected to be a cooperating witness for the government in Kuehne's case. He was indicted in January 2007 on a federal money laundering charge in New York. He is in jail in Colombia awaiting extradition to the United States, according to Bell and Mendez.

"They need a link from the Colombians to say that the money was drug derived and Kuehne knew or turned a blind eye," said Myles Malman, a former federal prosecutor who prosecuted Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, and a friend of Kuehne's. "Saravia is the most likely person to provide that link."

Those who know Kuehne or know his reputation were shocked by the indictment.

"You have to understand that Ben Kuehne is probably the best known, most upright, outstanding attorney that you can have," said Tom Cash, the former head of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Miami office. "He has a tremendous reputation. He's always been known as being a tower of integrity."

In recently filed motions to dismiss the charges, Kuehne's attorneys argued that Congress exempted criminal defense services from money laundering prosecutions and that the government has gone too far by essentially criminalizing negligence.

"If the lawyer knows he is subject to criminal prosecution and imprisonment when his judgment on whether to take a fee is flawed, even a client who has untainted funds may not be able to find a willing lawyer to take his case," they argue. The government must file its response by next week.

Other attorneys expressed the same concerns. "What makes it such a paralyzing case for other defense lawyers is if they can prosecute someone with the impeccable reputation of Ben Kuehne in these circumstances, then anyone could be arrested if they are doing work for alleged criminals where the government believes you wound up getting dirty money," Coffey said.

Other observers believe the government may have more evidence against Kuehne than they are letting on. "I have to believe the Department of Justice thinks there's something more here," said Robert Litt, the former head of the Department of Justice's criminal division, who was not familiar with the facts of the case.

"Was this a corrupt deal or a guy who got something wrong? If the latter, it's an outrage. If it's the former, it looks very different."

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