Murasko says the company was helped greatly by the Florida Legislature, which kept viatical companies from being regulated as securities. Legislators Geller and Ritter pushed the legislation, and Ritter's husband, Klenet, lobbied on behalf of the company. The support by lawmakers emboldened the company and its lawyers. "They were raking in the money," Murasko recalls. "They felt cocky. McNerney was overseeing the lobbying arm, and they were going full-throttle."
Keechl has refused to discuss his representation of Mutual Benefits, which doesn't seem surprising, since much of that work was indefensible.
Gloria Wolk, a consumer advocate, was one of the earliest experts to warn the public about Mutual Benefits. "As soon as I saw their promotional materials, I knew Mutual Benefits was a fraud," Wolk says. "People who thought they'd been defrauded would contact me, and I organized them."
After she warned people about Mutual Benefits on her website and in a book, she got a letter from Keechl and law partner Steven Gigliotti in March 2002 claiming that she was unlawfully using the name "Mutual Benefits" in "meta tags" — keywords used to help drive traffic to web postings — that accompanied her internet articles. They claimed that the use of the tags constituted copyright infringement and unlawful competition, since it diverted web traffic from the Mutual Benefits site.
The allegations on their face are ridiculous; the use of meta tags using company names is perfectly legal and is done all the time. As for the accusation of unlawful competition, Wolk didn't sell viaticals or work in the industry.
Wolk says she took down the Mutual Benefits meta tags and wrote Keechl a letter back asking him what else she could do to avoid a lawsuit.
He never wrote back. Instead, Keechl sued her in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
"I didn't say anything that was false about the company, so they tried to get me on a trademark thing," says Wolk. "If you couldn't use a company's name when you're criticizing it, you couldn't expose anything about any company. On top of that, they'd never even registered the trademark in the first place. It was obviously a frivolous lawsuit."
Yet Keechl went so far as to fly out to California where she lived in Laguna Beach to depose Wolk. The suit, filed in May 2002, dragged on for more than a year before a settlement was reached in the fall of 2003. The result actually favored Wolk. She says that to silence her criticism and keep her from filing a countersuit, the company paid her as a consultant to help it with charitable pursuits.
She says she thought it was a chance for something good to finally come from Mutual Benefits. The SEC shut down the company in 2004 before any philanthropic projects came to fruition.
"You want to know about Keechl? I'll tell you that I think he's dirty," says Wolk. "He's just another one of these miserable lawyers. Many of them are as bad as any con artist you can find, just padding their wallets."
Even by South Florida lawyer standards, Keechl's work for Mutual Benefits is an embarrassment — and it might be worse than that. His partner, McNerney, was indicted in December on conspiracy and money laundering charges in connection with his work for Mutual Benefits. McNerney is just one of numerous people who have been indicted or convicted in the Mutual Benefits case.
The law firm, in 2005, also faced a class action lawsuit from Mutual Benefits investors alleging negligence and breach of fiduciary duties. The firm paid $10 million to settle the suit, which didn't name Keechl personally.
Keechl left the law firm to run for County Commission in 2006. His opponent, incumbent Jim Scott, raised the issue of Mutual Benefits late in the race, prompting a single article in the Sun-Sentinel about the connection.
In the article, Keechl claimed he didn't know the company was breaking the law. "They were entitled to be represented, and they were," he said at the time. "That's what lawyers do."
Most lawyers stay away from defending ongoing criminal enterprises, though. And if Keechl didn't know it, then his judgment is suspect. If he did, then his ethics are in serious question.
The feds continue to investigate, and more indictments may be on the way. Murasko, who spent a lot of time in courtrooms with Keechl, says he doesn't have any inside information but believes that Keechl didn't take part in any criminality.
"I think Keechl was just a frontman," says the lawyer. "McNerney seemed like he was behind everything. That's what my gut tells me. I would be surprised if Keechl was in there with his hands out."
Maybe the vice mayor will stay out of handcuffs, but it's hard to defend keeping him in office.