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Prominent Tampa lawyer pleads guilty to helping hide drug money

Tampa attorney Joe M. Gonzalez signed a federal plea agreement last week in which he admitted trying to help two clients hide money from drug deals. Photo courtesy of Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc.
Tampa attorney Joe M. Gonzalez signed a federal plea agreement last week in which he admitted trying to help two clients hide money from drug deals. Photo courtesy of Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc.
Published Aug. 30, 2016

TAMPA — For more than three decades, lawyer Joe M. Gonzalez was a fixture of Tampa's civic scene, rubbing elbows with politicians and everyday citizens as he sought to honor the city's history and influence its politics.

But it was a happenstance encounter with a self-proclaimed drug dealer that touched off the tax lawyer's remarkable downfall.

Gonzalez, who was recently named Tampa's "Hispanic Man of the Year," admitted in court last week that he tried to help two clients hide proceeds from illegal drug deals. One was an informer, the other an undercover federal agent. Gonzalez faces up to five years in prison and the loss of his law license.

"This was a totally fictitious sting operation with no real drugs and no real drug money involved," said his attorney, John Fitzgibbons. "Mr. Gonzalez has had a distinguished career as a lawyer and civic leader for almost 35 years and he has accepted responsibility for his actions as a result of this unfortunate situation."

The charge to which Gonzalez, 66, pleaded guilty — structuring financial transactions to avoid reporting requirements — stemmed from his involvement with a man who acted as a confidential source for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In May 2014, the man, who was not named in court records, walked into Gonzalez's South Tampa law office and explained that he was expecting to spend two to three years in federal prison for a pending wire fraud case, according to the federal plea agreement. The charge, though, was not his only criminal activity, the man said. His main business was a marijuana grow house that he ran with his brother.

The operation netted the man between $30,000 and $50,000 a month, he told Gonzalez. He asked the lawyer to help him secure a safe place to put the cash so it would be available to him after he left prison, court records state.

Gonzalez gave the man advice on setting up a private trust, which would be accessible only by the two of them, according to the plea agreement. Gonzalez would then obtain a federal tax identification number and open bank accounts in the name of the trust. The man's brother would deposit the illegal funds into the accounts.

After collecting a $4,500 fee to set up the trust and bank account, Gonzalez met with the man again, along with an undercover DEA agent who posed as his brother. The agent gave Gonzalez $14,000 cash, $12,000 of which he later deposited into an account he set up through Fifth Third Bank, according to the plea agreement. The deposits were made in small installments so as not trigger the bank's currency transaction reporting requirement for totals of more than $10,000.

Gonzalez signed a plea agreement that was filed in U.S. District Court in July, shortly after U.S. attorneys brought charges against him.

His formal guilty plea came just weeks after Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc. named him its "Hispanic Man of the Year." The nonprofit umbrella for local Hispanic groups gives the annual honor to local leaders who have worked to promote the city's Hispanic heritage.

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Gonzalez helped found the group in the 1980s. On Monday, the organizers said they will rescind Gonzalez's award.

"We are sorry about Joe's problems," said Luz Lono, chair of the gala committee for Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc. "They were completely unexpected."

In May, Gonzalez received the Matilda Garcia Leadership Award from the City of Tampa Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council, of which he was a charter member.

Over the years, he also has been a member of the Tampa Police Chief's Citizens Advisory Committee, the Sheriff's Hispanic Advisory Council, and the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, among several other groups.

Fitzgibbons said it was likely that Gonzalez would resign from the Florida Bar. A sentencing date has not been set.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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