Friday, February 8, 2008
A highly-regarded Miami attorney, Ben Kuehne, was charged with money laundering for his role in approving payments to well-known defense lawyer Roy Black that allegedly were funds from a drug smuggling operation of the Medellín cocaine cartel. According to a story in the Miami Herald (here), Kuehne was retained by Black in connection with his representation of the head of the Medellín cartel to ensure that the funds were not tainted. According to the article, "Kuehne's research gave Black the confidence -- in the form of legal opinion letters -- to accept payments totaling $3.7 million in fees and $1.3 million in expenses from Ochoa, according to several sources. Kuehne earned a portion of the expense payments -- $220,000 to $260,000 -- from Black for vetting Ochoa's payments." Kuehne is a past president of the Dade County Bar Association and one of the fifty-two members of the Florida Bar Board of Governors, elected from the Eleventh Circuit. The Board of Governors "has exclusive authority to formulate and adopt matters of policy concerning the activities of the Bar," according to the Bar website (here).
Kuehne and his two co-defendants maintain their innocence, and it is not immediately apparent what the government's theory is in the case. The amount he received for his work may well be on the high side, at least if he were charging an hourly rate for his work on Black's behalf, which could have triggered the government's interest. If he received a percentage of Black's fee, then that could call into question the objectivity of his legal opinion. But when an attorney is asked to opine on the legality of funds to pay for the defense of a drug lord, it seems counterintuitive to say the least that he would give his imprimatur knowing that the funds were in fact the proceeds of narcotics transactions that the government was likely to scrutinize carefully. Given Kuehne's pristine reputation, it is hard to believe he would risk his entire legal career for an amount that, while significant, is hardly worth the loss of prestige and income he would suffer from a money laundering conviction. Would you sell your law license and career for a quarter of a million dollars? The documents in the case are not yet available, so I can't say at this point what approach the government plans to take or the evidence it is like to put on. It is certainly a head-scratcher at this point. (ph)