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Lifetime Achievement: Morris ‘Sandy’ Weinberg is a Florida Pioneer of White-Collar Criminal Law

Title: Partner Firm: Zuckerman Spaeder

Objectively, what key moments or accomplishments have defined your career?

After four years as a civil trial associate at Powell Goldstein in Atlanta, my career in criminal law began as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. At the time, the SDNY was the epicenter of the emergence of white-collar prosecutions. I was fortunate to be assigned to investigate Marc Rich and his international commodities trading enterprise. The Marc Rich investigation became the biggest white-collar investigation of its time with several years of headlines and incredible happenings. Rich was represented by some of the leading attorneys in the country, including Edward Bennett Williams. As a 32-year-old AUSA, it was the case of a lifetime and defined the rest of my career in criminal law. The Rich case re-emerged 20 years later when President Bill Clinton, on the last day of his presidency, granted a pardon to Rich and his partner Pincus Green, who had fled the country at the time of their indictments in 1983 and renounced their U.S. citizenships.

Following my career at the SDNY, my wife and I moved to Florida, which turned out to be a critical move in what has become a 46-year career. At the time, no major firm in Florida had a white-collar criminal practice and white-collar prosecutions were just beginning to be brought in Florida. My career struck lightning for a second time. While nearly all my colleagues from the SDNY were in New York City or Washington, D.C. firms, once I joined Carlton Fields in Tampa, I began receiving calls regarding major investigations on the Space Coast. As one of only two former SDNY AUSA’s in Florida, I benefited from my SDNY network and was able to build a thriving white-collar practice, first at Carlton Fields and then at Zuckerman Spaeder. I am incredibly proud to be one of the white collar pioneers in Florida.

Because of the nature of my practice, my greatest accomplishments involve investigations resulting in no charge for my clients, and for that reason, these are not matters in the public domain. In white-collar cases, the charge itself can literally destroy the client, whether a corporate executive or a corporation. If we can convince the prosecutors not to charge or to find a noncriminal resolution, we have achieved a huge victory for the client. Those victories are often celebrated silently as there is no press.

That said, I have had several very public high-profile clients and cases. Besides the Marc Rich case as a prosecutor, I can point to two such cases. One involved a pro bono representation of Ernest Miller, who, along with his half-brother William Jent, came within a few hours of being executed for the alleged murder of a young woman that they did not commit. We were able to secure a summary judgment in a federal habeas case as a result of an incredibly blatant Brady violation. I will never forget the moment when Mr. Miller was released from death row and I drove him back to Tampa for the celebratory press conference. Having spent almost 13 years on death row, he had only two simple requests on the drive to Tampa: he wanted a Coke in a bottle and to purchase a lottery ticket.

The second case involved Retired Four-Star Gen. Wallace Nutting. Gen. Nutting had two unified commands and was one of the most decorated generals in the Army. Inexplicably, he had been indicted in an eight-defendant defense contractor fraud case involving Sooner Defense in Lakeland. The trial lasted six and a half months in 1993. There were 100 trial days and I cross examined 100 witnesses. Gen. Nutting took the stand and was an imposing figure. He was acquitted. My wife and I have visited Gen. Nutting in his home state of Maine every year since the trial (except this past year due to COVID-19) and at 93, he never ceases to thank me for believing in him.

Subjectively, what are your proudest or most personally satisfying achievements?

I am most satisfied when I am solving problems. Over the years, the clients who have come to me have had their lives disrupted and are seeking help. It is typically not a fair fight — even with the biggest corporations and richest of clients — when the federal prosecutors and regulators are targeting them. I pride myself on my ability to deconstruct a complicated case and put together a factual and compelling legal defense. I start developing a plan the moment I first speak with the client. I have tried to impart that approach to all the young lawyers who have worked with me.

How are the business and profession of law changing, and are Florida lawyers well positioned for the future?

The practice of law is entirely different than when I first started in 1975. Back in 1975, lawyers routinely spent their entire careers at one firm. Big firms did not handle criminal cases. Except in NYC, most big firms did not encourage their young litigation associates to leave and get trial experience by being a prosecutor or public defender. Back then, big firms still represented insurance companies and had their fair share of trials. In my four years at Powell Goldstein, I had 13 jury trials (mostly insurance defense cases), which today would be unheard of. Today, lawyers change firms regularly and we encourage our best young litigators to consider a few years in a prosecutors’ office to get stand-up trial experience. Unlike when I started practice in Florida in 1985, there were few white-collar defense lawyers with a practice like I had envisioned. Today, every big firm and many smaller ones have white collar defense lawyers, which has dramatically increased the competition.

What advice would you give to someone contemplating a career in law, or someone whose career in law has not been satisfying so far? 

A legal career is not for everyone, so make sure you find a career you love. As a trial lawyer, you need to have a passion for the law. After 46 years, I still love getting new cases and working to solve complex problems. I still love the adrenaline kick when I go to court. It can be an incredibly satisfying profession. I never thought I would do anything for 46 years. I count my lucky stars every day.

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