TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court has suspended Maria Elena Perez, the Coral Gables lawyer who represented Nevin Shapiro in his Ponzi scheme case, for ethics violations of the rules regulating the Florida Bar.
The Florida Bar announced that the Supreme Court decided to disbar four lawyers and suspend two in October. Perez was one of the attorneys facing suspension due to her improper conduct and handling of information related to Shapiro’s case, as well as the investigation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the University of Miami.
The four lawyers disbarred were Darin Lentner of Fort Lauderdale, John Getzinger of Coral Springs and Delray Beach’s Charles Kane and Harley Kane. Aside from Perez, the Florida Supreme Court also issued a suspension order against William Cohen of Fort Lauderdale.
In its decision, the Florida Supreme Court confirmed the recommendation of Judge Norma Shepard Lindsey of the Miami-Dade Circuit to enforce a 91-day suspension against Perez. In addition to the suspension, the court also imposed a penalty against Perez worth $4,279. This would be used to cover the expenses incurred by the Florida Bar in handling her ethics case.
Perez represented Shapiro in the Ponzi scheme case in 2010, which saw Shapiro get convicted for money laundering and wire fraud. Court documents revealed that Shapiro successfully tricked people into investing in his business, Capitol Investments USA, by promising them huge sums for commissions. However, the business was revealed to be a scam worth $930 million. Perez was the attorney who handled the criminal charges against Shapiro. She represented him before the District of New Jersey and worked on his case before the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. She also handled his documents for his involuntary bankruptcy trial.
Perez also worked with the NCAA during her tenure as Shapiro’s lawyer. At around the same period, the organization was investigating the involvement of the Ponzi scheme perpetrator to the University of Miami football scandal. The reports showed that Perez herself had been providing information that proved to be detrimental against Shapiro in the NCAA investigation. When confronted with the matter, the lawyer defended herself by stating that both parties were aware of her involvement in the cases. She further pointed out that the information she provided the NCAA “was a matter of public knowledge.”
Perez also violated rules in her failure to properly work on the case of Saul Acuna-Acosta. In this matter, the lawyer was said to have been incompetent in handling the defense of her client. Acosta claimed that Perez botched his chance to defend himself against the federal drug charges filed against him in 2008 and 2009. In the review of her actions, it was found that the lawyer failed to file the required paperwork to aid her client during the investigation. Her failure to meet the deadlines for appeals and other documents also cost Acosta his day in court.
“I have warned her in the past and continue to warn her that she needs to be more careful in both her practice and her statements,” wrote the Florida Bar in their complaint against Perez. “A lawyer’s success is measured, in great part, by her reputation. Respondent must take care to avoid earning a reputation as a lawyer whose word cannot be trusted.”
In determining her penalties, the Supreme Court also took into consideration some mitigating factors. One of these is the health concerns surrounding Perez, especially during the Acosta trial. Records show that she went through significant health-related problems during the birth of her first and only child. Perez has no prior disciplinary record, making this the first complaint in her career.