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This Message Is Being Interrupted for a Muse, Part I

December 16, 2008

The questions are inevitable and will be answered throughout my postings, for they implicate what animates this blog:

  • Why is “Tarkoff’s Legal Secretary” an aphorism unique to me?

The term was actually used by Judge Kravitch with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals when she wrote her opinion in U.S. v. Tarkoff, 242 F. 3d 991 (11th Cir. 2001). She only called me “Tarkoff’s secretary” once (I added the “legal” from my own incorrect recollection of the opinion), but I always found the reference ironic (more on that in future postings).

“Tarkoff” is none less than the legendary “Michael H. Tarkoff,” a now formerly prominent Miami criminal defense attorney (he no longer practices law). He worked on cases like the Mueller kidnapping–yes, that’s “Mueller” as in the great granddaughter of the founder of Mueller Egg Noodles–and was the only attorney whose client (the alleged ring leader) was acquitted in that case. His reputation even occupied an entire chapter of a book describing his legendary status and nickname (“The Shark”). There were other famous cases and famous clients, but this is not about them. Michael Tarkoff was a lawyer’s lawyer, so I don’t need to say too much about him to any legal veterans reading this blog. He defended clients all over the globe. Any attorney who has been around a while knows who Michael Tarkoff is and that he is legendary.

Readers won’t be shocked to learn that I started working for him as a legal secretary. It was 16 years ago when I was a doe-eyed 21 year old fresh on the Miami scene from a bucolic town in Indiana. I somehow knew my life would change when I met Michael Tarkoff–just not how dramatically.

The entrance to his office was nothing less than spectacular. It first required me to pass through two sets of massive double mahogany doors anchored by Corinthian columns and brass sconces. Overcoming any intimidation I had by the most impressive and towering entrance to a law office I’ve ever seen, I entered to discover marble floors spilling into a waiting room encased by mahogany moldings framing an impressive chandelier centered above a sitting area demarcated by a Persian rug and leather studded seating. Mauve linen wallpaper circled the room attended by one of Miami’s notorious blond Cuban identical twins. I soon saw her sister pacing through the inner sanctum of the office and, at the time, did not realize they were two different people.

The overwhelming elegance of the entrance and waiting room was an ostentatious contrast to the raw beauty of the Atlantic ocean extending from the 26th floor bay window reflecting the grand Romanesque entry. I soon learned that this was an office littered with larger-than-life lawyers stalked by media crews from news shows like CNN, 60 Minutes, Primetime, Inside Edition, and the local Miami media (it was 1992–the media then was not what it is today).

I was buzzed through the second set of towering double doors only to be taken aback when the linen wallpaper and mahogany moldings gushed into every passageway and office. The lighting that burst into the waiting room receded behind the second set of double doors, underscoring the feeling that this was the ultimate domicile for discrete confidentiality. The walls, still donned with mauve linen wallpaper, were dotted with dimmed brass sconces and the formerly visible Atlantic Ocean retreated to each large, uniquely shaped and stunningly appointed office. Once I turned the first corner, I saw the third set of Corinthian decorated mahogany double doors, which revealed a law library spackled with floor to ceiling bookcases and lawyers busily researching at a conference table larger than most apartments in New York City. They were working on Manuel Noriega’s case. That is how the story begins for me.

Just a few years later, when I was about 25, a young, ambitious Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) apparently sought to advance his career the old fashioned way–by bringing down one of Miami’s famed criminal defense attorneys, among others, something that is a common sport in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, Florida. (See here for the latest on Ben Kuehne.) It was actually part of a huge indictment splashed across the front page of the Miami Herald–in print and posted online–and covered by the local and national media from Miami to Indianapolis, where I was living when the Indictment was prosecuted.

F.B.I. agents elected to first entreat and then coerce the small town, doe-eyed girl I once was to testify against Mr. Tarkoff, in part by intimidating my original lawyer, a prominent attorney who was and is known for being anything but doe-eyed. While I learned a lot through working for Michael Tarkoff and the mystical combination of education and experience, even by the time I matured enough to be unimpressed by the office in which I spent so much time during those years, I was still a naive 25 year old girl who was utterly unprepared for what I was to encounter.

U.S. v. Tarkoff has been the source of great angst (and even more so for many others, most obviously Michael Tarkoff). When the fog lifted, however, the conviction that remained powered me through law school like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France.

For many years I have been silent about U.S. v. Tarkoff–I have even hidden from the opinion in which Judge Kravitch made my name a permanent record maintained in the case books that have become my life. I simply kept my eyes on the prize, remaining hard at work. All these years, I’ve been working toward one main goal: The time when I could tell the true story of U.S. v. Tarkoff, not only as someone who knows that story, but also as someone understanding the legal issues involved and capable of a cogent analysis having merit. I was waiting for the time when I would share the facts that, if included in U.S. v. Tarkoff, should have compelled a different result. Now is that time, my coming out, so to speak.

This is my story only I can tell, and it is one I must tell. I was the main witness in the case now used to justify U.S. jurisdiction over financial transactions occurring wholly outside the United States, subjecting those transactions to the uncertain yet lethal scrutiny of U.S. money laundering laws. I was present at many of the most critical moments animating U.S. v. Tarkoff and my name is repeatedly mentioned in the opinion, hence the aphorism unique to me. I was privy to conversations regarding the subject of U.S. v. Tarkoff and to government misconduct and corruption.

Notably, the one person, however, who could have benefited from much of my knowledge did not think it appropriate to put a young girl in the middle of such a debacle, and that was Michael H. Tarkoff. Consequently, not even Judge Kravitch knew about relevant, exculpatory facts and the ethical violations and professional corners cut in U.S. v. Tarkoff when she penned the opinion affirming the conviction of an innocent man.

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