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A Kind of Eulogy to Joaquin “Jack” Fernandez

January 11, 2009

Now that Manuel Noriega’s sentence has been served and the Eleventh Circuit will be deciding on January 14, 2009, whether he shall be returned to Panama or deported to France, I am, once again, confounded by memories of Joaquin “Jack” Fernandez.

I knew Jack back from my days of being “Tarkoff’s legal secretary.” If there were a Cuban Santa Claus, Jack could have been the prototype. He was the kind of person you could not dislike. I know first hand because I had every reason to dislike him.

He was Michael Tarkoff’s co-defendant in U.S. v. Tarkoff, but to really understand the connection, I must first share a little history.

Back in the ’80s, an Arizona grand jury issued a highly publicized True Bill charging attorney Jack Fernandez, Ismael Arnaiz, and several others with drug conspiracy and importation. Frank Rubino and Ray Takiff generously represented Jack. Michael Tarkoff represented another co-defendant. Several other attorneys were involved, and suffice to say, the case was the talk of Miami at the time.

The lawyers in the case, which was ultimately transferred to Miami, were good friends whose bonds only strengthened during the course of the case. Thereafter, Michael Tarkoff ultimately joined Frank Rubino in building out office space in Coconut Grove when his partnership with Vinnie Flynn dissolved, as well as Stephen Golembe, another lawyer who represented one of the Arizona defendants, along with a handful of other noteworthy lawyers.

Later, after President H.W. Bush invaded Panama to capture Manuel Noriega–a friend of Jack’s–to stand trial in the United States, Jack returned Frank Rubino and Ray Takiff’s generosity on the Arizona case by encouraging Noriega to retain them (which he did).

Jack was not your ordinary person. We all have our little black books, but Jack’s black book was filled with names of people like Manuel Noriega and Raul Castro. And yet, the vertically impaired little man with the round belly, beard, perpetual smile, and eternally gracious greetings never exuded the slightest tinge of arrogance one might expect from someone who counted dictators among his friends. You simply could not dislike Jack Fernandez, regardless of his faults and shortcomings.

Enter Ismael Arnaiz.  He was also one of Jack’s friends (and one of Jack’s co-defendants in the Arizona case). Both were from Cuba, and their friendship had a long history dating back to Cuba. After being released from prison as a result of his conviction in the Arizona case, Ismael became somewhat of an international businessman. Some of his businesses were legitimate, like a fishing business he had in Venezuela and some increasingly popular medicare clinics in Miami, which were stocked with medical equipment and staffed by medical professionals and doctors serving Medicare beneficiaries. Some of his businesses, however, particularly those with his partner Akiyoshi Yamada, were alleged to be either fronts for fraudulent Medicare billing or semi-legitimate clinics that submitted some fraudulent billing while also providing some legitimate services.

Ismael, knowing Michael Tarkoff from the Arizona case, eventually sought Michael out to assist him with an impending parole violation. Once again, the old Arizona crew was reminiscing about the old days and speculating about what would happen next, except that this time around, Frank Rubino, Jack Fernandez, and Michael Tarkoff were all working out of the same office (although Jack’s law license was suspended at that time due to the Arizona case, so he was not actually practicing law). Ray Takiff disappeared from the scene after being involved in a highly publicized judicial misconduct debacle.

During the time Michael represented Ismael, the situation was unique because of Jack and Ismael’s close friendship. Consequently, Jack often knew more about the details of Ismael’s business dealings and financial interests than Ismael told Michael. It was not unusual, however, because, as Ismael’s lawyer, Michael’s concern was representing Ismael with respect to the clinics alleged to have submitted fraudulent billings to Medicare.

Ultimately, Ismael and his partner, Akiyoshi Yamada, were indicted for supposedly fraudulently billing Medicare in excess of 120M. The Indictment did not take into consideration that not all of the clinics’ billing could be patently fraudulent when many were equipped and staffed by medical professionals and doctors. The Indictment also–obviously–did not address the fact that Ismael had legitimate businesses outside the United States. After being indicted, Ismael sought to negotiate a “get out of jail free card” by telling the Government about a broad range of illegal dealings that resulted in the indictment of a state congressman, Jack Fernandez, and Michael Tarkoff (among others). (In attempting to negotiate a “get out of jail free” card, Ismael retained a new attorney, notorious for snitching out cases.)

To make a long story short, Jack testified at his trial to a sequence of events that did not precisely resemble what occurred. He was acquitted. Michael Tarkoff subsequently went to trial, could not call Jack as a witness to testify to pertinent exculpatory details as a result of Jack’s testimony at his own trial, and took the fall. Not only was Michael convicted of a crime he did not commit, the $450,000 Jack “handled” for Ismael Arnaiz who, at the time of Michael’s trial was a fugitive, was seized from Michael after his conviction (even though it was undisputed that the money was received, maintained, and kept by Jack–compliments of conspiracy laws) . Ultimately, Ismael was “captured” (living in Miami), and his testimony in his own case corroborated that of Michael Tarkoff, i.e., that Michael was misinformed by Jack and Ismael regarding facts that, had the jury known, would have exonerated Michael from his money laundering charges.  Facts that, had the jury accepted my trial testimony, would have also led to an acquittal.

And yet, Michael remained friends with Jack (who never repaid Michael the $450,000 seized from him by the Government as a result of his conviction). I’m not sure if that’s a greater testament to the mensch that Michael is or to the unique character of Jack that simply would not allow one to dislike him.

I speak of Jack in the past tense because he is now deceased. He died of stomach cancer sometime around 2005 or 2006. I remember when Michael called me with the news of his passing with the same clarity with which I can recall the first moments of discovering the 911 terrorist attack, primarily because I was horrified that my first reaction was not one of sympathy (though that quickly changed). Jack Fernandez played a huge role in turning Michael’s life upside down (to say the least), which thereby forever changed the course of my life as I spent years imprisoned by my self-imposed conviction resulting from U.S. v. Tarkoff.

And yet . . . I haven’t a bad thing to say about Jack Fernandez. Instead, I read of his friend, Manuel Noriega’s case being up for review as his sentence has now been served, and know how happy that Jack would be at this pregnant moment. This is the moment to which Jack was always looking forward. I remember his ever smiling face, jovial disposition, and that I never heard him speak in an unkind or disrespectful tone to anyone. Despite everything, my memory of Jack Fernandez is his infectious smile and my thought at this moment is that it should not pass without a tip of the hat to the late Joaquin “Jack” Fernandez, may he rest in peace.

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