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The three black attorneys who trumpeted Abner Louima's cry of police brutality in the aftermath of the attack on him in Brooklyn's 70th Precinct last year have filed a lien against the potential millions the Haitian immigrant might receive from a settlement or jury award, the Voice has learned.
On March 3, a month after they resigned from Louima's legal team, Carl Thomas, Brian Figeroux, and Casilda Roper-Simpson notified the city comptroller of their intention to stake the claim. Their one-page document does not spell out a reason for the action, but Thomas told the Voice that a conflict arose when he and his colleagues felt that O. J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran and two other members of the "dream team," Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, had improperly entered the explosive case.
"At the conclusion of the criminal and civil cases, we expect a judge to adjudicate the issue of fees and at that time we will lay all our cards on the table," says Thomas, who was Louima's lead attorney. Joe Cooney, a spokesman for Cochran, said Cochran was unavailable. Scheck also did not return a phone call for comment. Neufeld told the Voice "there was nothing improper" about the way he, Cochran, and Scheck entered the case, and that a lien is routine for lawyers who want to ensure that they get paid. He then accused the reporter of being "a hired hand" who is being used by "the frustrated and disappointed Carl Thomas." The notice of lien was also sent to Sanford Rubenstein, a personal-injury lawyer who was one of Louima's original attorneys and now is working with Cochran. Rubenstein says his former colleagues are within their right to mount a challenge to the fees.
Last year, Louima filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city. But on August 6, Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld--who were among the attorneys who won a murder acquittal for Simpson--amended the suit to include the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents most of the 40,000-member force.
The lawyers targeted the union partly because of the controversial "48-hour rule," which gives police the right to wait two business days before answering questions about shootings or alleged misconduct. Critics charge the rule gives police time to coordinate their stories or tamper with witnesses. Scheck said the lawsuit will "deal a death blow to the blue wall of silence."
On August 9 last year, Louima got caught up in a fight with police outside of Club Rendez-Vous, a popular East Flatbush nightspot for Haitians, where officers were trying to disperse a crowd. That confrontation allegedly led to the beating and sexual abuse of Louima by officers in the 70th Precinct station house and a cover-up. Five officers have been charged in the attack, which left Louima hospitalized for months with a perforated colon. Prosecutors say Louima was sodomized with the handle of a toilet plunger.
At the heart of the money dispute is Thomas's argument that Cochran is not entitled to a cut of any award or settlement on grounds of "tortious interference with a contract." Thomas described Cochran as a racial ambulance chaser who may have "broken ethical canons" when he allegedly sidestepped Louima's original legal team to solicit the role of lead attorney.
Thomas insists that Cochran never contacted him or his group about joining the team. He claims Cochran told him he was contacted by someone in the Haitian community who pleaded with him to look at the case. Cochran then called Samuel Nicolas, Louima's cousin and spokesman, who arranged a visit with Louima so that Cochran could wish him well. Thomas maintains that two days before the visit, he appeared on Cochran's cable TV show, Cochran & Company, and at no time did the famed attorney broach the subject of working with him.
Nicolas, according to Thomas, contacted Brian Figeroux and they accompanied Cochran to Louima's bedside at Brooklyn Hospital Center. Thomas recalls that he decided to allow Cochran to see Louima since the alleged police brutality victim had seen a stream of celebrities, including boxing promoter Don King and former mayor David Dinkins.
"We regarded him as just one in a long list of personalities who desired to see our client," Thomas says. "And all who came to see Louima first contacted us, the attorneys." He says that after seeing Louima, Cochran asked to join the legal team as a consultant. Within hours of the visit, Cochran had a signed retainer agreement with Louima.
"As far as we know, Louima's family never called Cochran," Thomas says. "A reasonable person could conclude that his original intent was to take over the case."
Marie Brenner, who wrote a lengthy article about Louima for Vanity Fair last December, gave a different account of Cochran's initial entry into the case. According to Brenner, "Johnnie Cochran's role... was initiated on the cell phone of a car speeding down the Belt Parkway toward Brooklyn Hospital, to which Louima had been transferred. It was August 21. That morning Louima had asked King Kino [the Haitian political singer and leader of the band that played at the club the night Louima was arrested], to visit him at the hospital, and Kino stopped by his record store to pick up some of Abner's favorite tapes." Brenner was in the car with Kino.