Personal injury lawyers paid kickbacks to Miami-Dade risk management workers, authorities say.
Twenty-six people _ 22 lawyers and four law firm employees _ are charged with filing millions of dollars' worth of phony personal injury claims with Miami-Dade County since 1995.
The personal injury lawyers paid kickbacks to county risk management employees, who in exchange expedited and inflated settlements, said county police Director Carlos Alvarez.
The county employees would typically receive 10 percent of the bogus claim, Alvarez said.
Investigators said at least 1,000 fraudulent settlements were successfully processed, which cost the county as much as $10,000 each and more than $1-million a year.
"These lawyers have turned their backs on their sworn duty to uphold the law, and instead they have broken the law because of greed," said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Ferndandez-Rundle.
The arrests culminate Operation Risky Business, a countywide corruption probe that began in 1998 and has led to the arrest of 61 people. Eighteen people arrested in May 1999 included four county employees, five attorneys and two doctors.
Police relied on informers within the county Risk Management Division to lead them through a well-defined operation established several years ago, investigators said.
In some of the cases, risk management employees worked with personal injury lawyers to settle injury claims for people who didn't exist, investigators said.
In other cases, county employees allegedly inflated settlement claims, expedited their processing or falsified claims investigations.
Evidence of the fraud surfaced last year when risk management Director Marsha Pascual overheard several employees bragging about the money they were making from false claims.
The Miami Herald reported that 26 people face charges of unlawful compensation, a third-degree felony, and the lawyers could be disbarred. Six lawyers and two law firm employees also face state racketeering charges.
Charged with racketeering and unlawful compensation for official behavior: lawyers David Sostchin, Enrique Miranda, Richard Burke, Gaston Alvarez, Julio Arango, and Richard Wolfson; and law firm employees Oliver Ruiz and Victoria Miyares.
Charged only with unlawful compensation: lawyers Richard Kirshner, Santiago Pellegrini, Armando Perez, Charles Flaxman, Jesus O. Cervantes, Mariano Sole, Raul Cossio, Mario Cabello, Hilario Gonzalez, Mario Tacher, Herman Klemick, Joseph Rodriguez, Alexis Izquierdo, Raul Pino, Arthur Karlick, and Moises Kaba; and law firm employees Rafael Pomares and Maria Kaba.