MIAMI — ATTORNEY Joel Hirschhorn is a proud ex-member of Miami's "white-powder bar."
In the heyday of the 1980s, it was not unusual for his drug-smuggling clients to send Mr. Hirschhorn suitcases stuffed with cash as payment for a single case. When money was tight, they sent yachts, Porsches, and bars of silver. Ninety-five percent of his caseload revolved around clients in the illegal narcotics trade.
But today, this prominent Miami lawyer eschews drug cases.
Hirschhorn didn't get out for moral reasons, but "because the profit was slowly being taken out," he says. "By representing a drug smuggler, I risked forfeiture of my fee and quite possibly an indictment against myself."
Hirschhorn read well the writing on the wall. Six of Miami's most well-known defense attorneys were indicted earlier this month, reigniting an issue that has smoldered here for the past decade: Does drug money taint the South Florida legal system?
Hirschhorn and other attorneys argue that the Dodge City days of making a financial killing representing Miami's cocaine cowboys are over. The indictments, they say, are only the latest in a string of measures that have steered many lawyers away from such clients.
With the passage of the Omnibus Crime Control Act in 1990, as well as several US Supreme Court decisions, attorneys were put on notice that their fees have to come from legitimate enterprises. By law, big-cash payments not only have to be reported to the federal government, but attorneys now have to make sure the money is "clean."
Yet the lure, for some, is still there. Despite the penalties, danger, and damage to one's reputation that can occur, many young South Florida lawyers continue to seek drug cases.
The money doesn't flow the way it did in the late 1980s, but clients still pay well. "It's like standing at a slot machine and hitting a jackpot every time you pull the lever," says Tom Cash, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
The federal indictment handed down against the Miami defense attorneys alleges that they did more than take fat payments of "dirty" money. It is a portrait, prosecutors say, of advocates who become accomplices.
The lawyers relayed death threats from Colombian drug lords, the indictment charges. In one incident, a lawyer allegedly revealed the identity of a secret informant who later wound up dead. Prosecutors say a cartel assassin murdered him.
THREE of the lawyers, including a former US prosecutor, have pleaded guilty to felonies. The other three have hired some of the most glittering talent in the trade.
The team of defense attorneys - Roy Black, Neal Sonnett, and Al Kreiger - contends that prosecutors are playing dirty. They say their clients were just doing their job as counsel to some of the world's most-wanted men. "It's an outrageous assault on the right to have a criminal-defense lawyer," charges Roy Black, the lawyer for former Justice Department attorney Michael Abbell.
"This has a very chilling effect on all the lawyers in South Florida," says Fred Schwartz, who represents a young lawyer who pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge in the case.
"The new rules make it harder to be as candid with your client and vice versa," Hirschhorn agrees.
But federal investigators dismiss such assertions. "No one is being charged with trying to win their case at trial," says US Attorney Kendall Coffey. Investigators say the 161-page indictment shows that a clear legal line was crossed. The offenses, they say, were not in gray ethical areas but aimed at keeping the drug organizations afloat.
While the US Attorney's office denies it, Hirschhorn says the racketeering indictment sends a strong signal - but not to the Cali cartel. "The message is: Lawyer beware ... that line you used to cross, is now thinner and harder to see."