MIAMI — Ben Kuehne is a top-tier Miami defense lawyer, the type other attorneys rely on for legal advice. Member of the Florida Bar's Board of Governors. Ex-president of the Dade County Bar Association. Counsel to former Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 vote recount.
Now, Kuehne stands accused of a crime for the advice he gave to a defense team headed by another high-profile Miami lawyer, Roy Black, in a Medellin cocaine cartel smuggling case. And his unprecedented indictment on money-laundering and obstruction of justice charges as part of a U.S. sting operation is sending shivers down the spines of defense attorneys nationwide.
"I tell you frankly it scares the life and soul out of me," said defense attorney Milton Hirsch.
Some defense attorneys say lawyers will stop taking cases involving defendants whose financial situations are murky because of fears they could someday face charges themselves.
"This will affect many types of white-collar criminal cases, not just drug kingpin cases, and may well impact the ability of defendants to hire talented and zealous lawyers," said Miami defense attorney Neal Sonnett, who recently represented former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff in a fraud case.
Kuehne, 53, is accused of writing opinion letters that Colombian drug kingpin Fabio Ochoa had enough money free from the taint of drug trafficking to pay some $5.2-million in legal fees. For his advice, Kuehne was paid just under $200,000 by Black's firm and others involved in Ochoa's defense.
A sizable chunk of the supposedly legitimate money was traced to a businessman named Hernando Saravia, who supposedly ran reputable gem and flower businesses. Saravia's role was to transfer some of this purportedly legitimate cash from Ochoa to Black.
What Kuehne didn't know is that Saravia is cooperating with federal prosecutors — he's facing federal drug money laundering charges in New York — and some of that money was in reality illegal drug proceeds being handled by undercover U.S. agents. Prosecutors also say Saravia's businesses were actually run by U.S. agents and that a letter from him contained a forged signature.
No one has been charged before for giving advice about legal fees to another attorney, said former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey.
"The shocker here is that a lawyer was charged who is not acting as a criminal accomplice," said Coffey, who is now in private practice. "It's more than chilling. It's paralyzing. If they'll prosecute Ben Kuehne, then anyone can be prosecuted."
The case is being handled by the U.S. Justice Department in Washington rather than the Miami U.S. attorney's office. In a statement, the Justice Department said it "approaches with great care" any possible prosecution of a defense lawyer.
"However, when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing, the department will honor its commitment to the pursuit of justice. Attorneys are not immune from prosecution for money laundering simply on the basis that they represent criminal defendants," the statement said.
Initially, the focus of the investigation was Black, one of Miami's top defense lawyers who is perhaps best known for successfully defending William Kennedy Smith, a nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, on rape charges and representing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh in a doctor-shopping case.
Black retained Kuehne to vet the fees for him, setting up a buffer for any legal jeopardy, and took over the case.
In a statement, Black's law firm cited Kuehne's experience and "first-rate" reputation and said the Ochoa defense team found his opinions on the fees "extremely thorough."
"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," the statement said.
Kuehne, who declined interview requests, has pleaded not guilty and faces maximum prison sentences totaling 50 years on three separate charges. Kuehne also could be forced to forfeit the $5.2-million paid to Black and others in legal fees, and he could lose his law license.
Also charged are a Colombian lawyer, Oscar Saldarriaga, and accountant Gloria Flores Velez. They also have pleaded not guilty.
Ochoa, meanwhile, was convicted of drug conspiracy charges. Now 50, he's set for release from prison in March 2028.