Troubled task force sent drug money to ex-prosecutor

August 27, 2015

Robert Feitel, a veteran lawyer with a long history of prosecutions, charged into court as the Justice Department’s point man to take on a prominent Miami lawyer in a case that came to symbolize the rights of attorneys to accept fees from international drug traffickers.

Feitel accused lawyer Ben Kuehne of fabricating documents to cover up dollars for the Medellin Cartel. He accused him of orchestrating the payments through overseas wires. He even said Kuehne knew much of the money came from the sale of drugs.

Now, years after the case ended, Feitel is cast in a strikingly similar position as the man he once prosecuted.

The Miami Herald found that more than $100,000 in drug money belonging to criminal organizations was sent to Feitel’s law firm by South Florida undercover officers posing as money launderers to infiltrate drug groups.

The undercover police picked up the cash in New York and sent the money to Feitel — now a defense attorney who specializes in drug cases — at the behest of criminal organizations in a series of payments never questioned by the former prosecutor, records and interviews show.

Kuehne, whose case was ultimately dropped by the government in 2009, said he was surprised to learn about payments to the man who once prosecuted him.

“The question is: Why was he getting the money?” said Kuehne, a former member of the Florida Bar’s board of governors who represented Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential recount. “Is he going to get the same knock on the door?”

Contacted by phone, Feitel said he was unaware of the money sent to his office in northwest Washington, where he works mostly as a solo practitioner, adding he was surprised by The Herald’s call. “We’re usually pretty careful” about accepting questionable fees, he said.

For more than a year, the two men were on opposite ends of a case that attracted national attention over the right of the government to seize money from lawyers and arrest them under tough laws created by Congress in the 1980s to fight the drug war.

Congress later changed the law to protect lawyers from prosecution when taking on drug cases, but they can still be charged if they know the money comes from illegal activities.

Initially, the Herald found that undercover cops picked up a large cache of drug cash in New York and then hauled it back to Bal Harbour, where they wired a payment for $49,000 to the Feitel law firm.

In subsequent records examined last month, reporters found two more wires to the former prosecutor totaling $55,800 in money that had been collected on the streets by the undercover cops in 2012. After the Herald emailed the latest information to Feitel, he did not respond to interview requests.

Feitel, 49, was among eight lawyers who were sent money from the Tri-County Task Force, a troubled unit consisting of the Bal Harbour Police Department and Glades County Sheriff’s Office in what were believed to be legal fees and other payments to the attorneys from drug networks.

Members of the task force, who kept at least $2.4 million for themselves in commissions, did not make any arrests nor did they follow up to question any of the lawyers about the money delivered to them.

The first wire to Feitel was sent less than a year after he led one of the most prominent cases ever waged over what prosecutors declared to be tainted legal fees.

Kuehne, 61, known for his trademark bow tie, was charged with money laundering and obstruction after he was hired by defense lawyer Roy Black to review legal fees from Medellin Cartel leader Fabian Ochoa, and ultimately determined the money was not from the drug trade.

A popular practitioner and former president of the Dade County Bar Association, Kuehne was regularly hired by other lawyers because of his expertise in vetting the source of defendants’ assets.

After traveling to Colombia, Kuehne said the fees came from the sale of cattle, horses and other property that had been in Ochoa’s family years before he ventured into the cocaine world.

Feitel, a senior prosecutor who spent two decades with the DOJ, took a vastly different position, arguing that Kuehne knew the money came from Ochoa’s long history with drugs, and the Miami attorney helped organize the payments through what’s known as the black market peso exchange — an underground currency system often used by drug dealers.

To make his case, Feitel asserted that some of the money to pay the fees was sent to Kuehne by undercover agents posing as money launderers who were working with a criminal money broker from Colombia.

“He tried to nail Ben to the wall,” recalled Henry Bell, a Miami attorney representing a co-defendant.

Ironically, Feitel, who left the Justice Department shortly afterward, would be in a similar position the next year in his own legal practice.

Months after he set up a criminal practice in Washington, undercover police in Bal Harbour struck a deal with a money broker and then picked up $447,630 from a drug courier in New York in 2010.

They then placed the money in a bank account at SunTrust in Bal Harbour under a dummy corporate name.

Within days, undercover police received an email directing them where to send some of the funds: Feitel’s law office bank account in Washington.

Federal court records show Feitel represented several accused drug dealers at the time, including Cali Cartel member Victor Patino at a deportation hearing in June.

Several defense lawyers from Miami said they were riled that the onetime senior prosecutor was never questioned by law enforcement agents about the money sent to his account — funds picked up off the streets of New York from drug suspects.

“In his role at the DOJ, he prosecuted Ben for the same thing;” Bell said.

In an earlier interview, Feitel said money sent from a U.S. bank like the one used by the task force is more difficult to screen than funds from overseas exchange houses. “How was I supposed to know” the money is tainted? said Feitel. “That would have been difficult.”

One former federal prosecutor said money wired to a law firm from someone who is not a client should have raised basic questions. “What did he think the money was for?” said Joseph DeMaria, a Miami attorney who once served on the DOJ’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section. “He’s got to be saying to himself: ‘Why am I getting this money? Especially someone who was a former prosecutor who’s even more heightened on these kinds of issues. He spent his career putting people in jail for money laundering.”

In each case, the money was sent by the police under the names of dummy companies that never engaged in actual business.

John Tobon, a U.S. Homeland Security agent who specializes in money laundering, said it doesn’t matter if wires come from domestic banks. “What matters is: Do you have a business relationship with that company” that’s wiring the money, he asked. “If you don’t, I’m going to be worried.”

Without ever investigating the payments, the task force was disbanded in 2012 over misspending of forfeiture money — funds seized in drug cases — to pay for police salaries.

Eventually, the records of the unit, including the bank wires, were opened to the Miami FBI, but the agency did not follow up to question Feitel or the other lawyers, records and interviews show.

DeMaria said the irony of the Kuehne case is it may have actually protected the lawyers who were sent money from the undercover cops. The case upheld the principle, rooted in the Sixth Amendment, that lawyers should be able to represent drug dealers without fear of being prosecuted.

“The very decision to protect Ben Kuehne may be what protects [Robert Feitel]” and the others,” said Demaria. “It really is a case of the pot meeting the kettle.”