Freedom for Sale, Part 2
Part 1 described a federal sting designed to catch a bad lawyer named Israel Perez Jr. A convicted drug dealer named Antonio Monroy told authorities that Perez had promised to provide two DEA agents who would lie to reduce his sentence. Read the details in our archives from the issue of October 19, 2006.
Around 10:00 a.m. October 27, 1999, an FBI agent and a detective from the Miami-Dade Police Department Public Corruption Investigations Bureau walked into a Miami Suntrust Bank and withdrew $100,000 in "show money" from a vault. They took the funds to Virginia Monroy's apartment in Miami Beach, hoping to spur Israel Perez Jr. to some illegal action. A meeting was scheduled that afternoon, but Perez never showed. He called later to tell Virginia he had been busy in court. They rescheduled the meeting.
The next day, the agent and detective redelivered the cash to Virginia's place, but it wasn't enough to entice Perez into incriminating himself. He arrived around 12:30 and told Virginia he still couldn't do anything for Antonio, according to an FBI surveillance report. The attorney had been saying for months that the DEA agents wouldn't get involved until the case against Antonio and a woman charged with him was settled. Antonio's codefendant had first appealed her case and now was cooperating with the government and waiting to testify against others, Perez told Virginia.
During the conversation, Virginia told Perez she could show him the $100,000. But Perez declined, saying it would be "compromising." This implies Perez knew his scheme might be illegal or at least unethical.
That same day, Federal Magistrate Judge Ted Bandstra authorized federal authorities to put traces on three of Perez's telephones. Authorities got several hits. They attempted to check whether they were DEA phone numbers, but the result is unclear in the public record.
Perez and Virginia met for the last time on December 14, 1999, outside the El Pub restaurant near SW Eighth Street and Seventeenth Avenue around noon. It didn't go well. The meeting lasted less than a half-hour. Miami-Dade detectives had been carrying out some type of operation near the restaurant, complete with police cars and officers pulling weapons.
Perez became very nervous, and Virginia had to calm him. The cop cars had nothing to do with them. In court documents, Antonio concludes that Perez "must have been spooked by this incident, as he cut off all further communication" with Virginia. The FBI believes that Perez suspected he was being watched.
Six months after the encounter on Eighth Street, the FBI closed the books on the case. Antonio had already served more than two years of his sentence; he and his mother had been cooperating for most of that. Both wanted the government to shave time off Antonio's sentence. The government, in effect, declined.
But it wasn't over. A June 2001 FBI report indicates an interesting lead had surfaced relating to the two mysterious DEA agents' identities. While Perez began distancing himself from the Monroys, the DEA was investigating a pair of its agents for alleged "noncompliance with administrative regulations." Authorities couldn't determine if they had been involved in Perez's plan. "All attempts to connect the agents with Perez were unsuccessful," according to the FBI report. (A DEA spokeswoman told New Times she had no information on such an investigation.)
A year and a half later, in 2002, Perez's name again came to the feds' attention. A defendant in a DEA-led cocaine-trafficking investigation told an agent that Perez had offered him a deal similar to the one Perez had tried on the Monroys. Marc Nunes, a Jamaican citizen doing time on drug charges at Yazoo City the same prison where Antonio was incarcerated hired Perez on the advice of Victor Lynshue, a fellow Jamaican he met at the Miami Federal Detention Center.
Nunes reported that Perez made his pitch in July 2001. There were two minor differences from the Monroy plan, though. Nunes's get-out-of-jail card would cost $50,000. And Perez claimed the DEA agents had made similar deals with 30 other defendants. The number he gave Antonio was 20.
Nunes claimed he made three payments, totaling $26,500, to Perez. After the third disbursement $9000 was delivered in early spring 2002, Nunes says he never heard from the attorney again.
In the months that followed, more inmates and members of the public came forward, saying they had lost money to Perez. Only Nunes claimed Perez had offered to produce corrupt federal law enforcement agents.
In August 2003, Ronald Francisco Taylor-Archbold, another inmate convicted on drug charges, told investigators Perez offered to take his case for $50,000. Archbold's stepdaughter informed the FBI she paid $30,000 to Perez, but he never did anything to assist in their case. She even picked Perez out of a photo lineup.
Yazoo City inmates Erroll Whyte and Victor Lynshue, and a Jamaican woman named Karlene Sherlock, claimed Perez tried to hustle them. Whyte paid nothing. Sherlock laid out $1000 so Perez could help her with permanent residency documents for her daughter. (The daughter eventually obtained the papers through an employer.) And Lynshue alleged he gave Perez $10,000 for help on a criminal appeal but never heard from him again.
The new information was handed off to Miami-Dade prosecutors, but like the Monroys, the inmates at first were helpful but then withdrew from the investigation. The case was stalled. "You need victims to be a foundation for a criminal case," said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle. "In this matter, we lacked total assistance from the victims."
It's unclear why the prisoners made the allegations and then retreated. It's possible that the claim of freedom for money simply passed along the jailhouse grapevine, or as Perez would later claim, the convicts conspired to "tarnish" his reputation. Perez wrote, "It is obvious to me that Mr. Lyn Shue [sic] and his associates have created this web of innuendos to harm me in this [Florida Bar] investigation."
Antonio Monroy was frustrated. So on February 21, 2003, he sent a letter to the Florida Bar. "For some unknown and undisclosed reason," he wrote, "the government has failed to prosecute Israel Perez.... Such an individual should not be allowed to continue practising [sic] law and subverting the courts and actively recruiting clients in violating state and federal laws, committing perjury, and obstructing justice."
On May 10, 2003, Perez responded: He was "surprised" to see Antonio's affidavit but wrote, "I guess I can understand the motive," apparently referring to Antonio's desire to get out of jail early. The lawyer recalled that he had first met with Virginia in 1999, and soon told her that he couldn't help her son. Perez claimed he never saw or accepted any other money besides the cash for his travel.
He was apparently unaware of the federal surveillance.
The bar eventually obtained the tapes and transcripts of Perez's conversations with Antonio and Virginia. In April 2006, bar investigator Stephen Kramer reviewed the transcripts and wrote, "Portions of them are extremely detrimental to Perez.... My words cannot adequately substitute for the words that Perez used in his various conversations with Virginia."
In April, Kramer met with Perez, who denied committing a crime. But Perez admitted breaking bar rules in his handling of the Monroy case. After being confronted with the tapes, he laid out a confusing and bizarre scenario in which he was attempting to collect a $100,000 debt for his client by appearing as if he were pursuing a reduction in sentence on behalf of Antonio. "This was my mistake," Perez wrote. Later he claimed, "I became concerned ... that I was not being honest in my actions.... I realized I had fallen into a trap.... As I go to bed every night, I question myself for having acted in such a fashion."
In a subsequent letter, Perez denied the other Miami inmates' allegations. But on July 20, Perez pleaded guilty to violating ethics rules in the Monroy case. On September 14, the Florida Supreme Court agreed he should be disbarred for his conduct. The sanction becomes effective on Halloween.
The question remains as to why Perez was never charged or even arrested in connection with the scheme he was heard plotting on tape. And the public might never know whether there were indeed federal agents willing to sell their testimony. There is a history of badges for sale in Miami. Back in the 1980s a DEA intelligence agent was indicted for allegedly selling information to people targeted in investigations. An FBI agent admitted to taking almost one million dollars in bribes from drug dealers he had been investigating. And more than a dozen local cops have been busted for small-time scams over the years.
It is possible the investigation into Perez is continuing in secret. Federal authorities won't talk about him.
"We don't comment on the existence of any investigation or its progress," says Alicia Valle, special counsel for the Miami U.S. Attorney's Office.
"We can't discuss any cases if there are no charges brought," comments FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela.
Will Antonio Monroy cooperate further? He was released from prison in July but wouldn't speak with New Times. After a brief initial conversation, he didn't answer the phone.
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