Article Courtesy of The Tampa
By Dan Sullivan
Published September 1, 2016
TAMPA — For more than three decades, lawyer Joe M.
Gonzalez was a fixture of Tampa's civic scene, rubbing elbows with
politicians and everyday
citizens as he sought to honor the city's history and influence its
But it was a happenstance encounter with a self-proclaimed drug dealer
that touched off the tax lawyer's remarkable downfall.
Gonzalez, who was
recently named Tampa's "Hispanic Man of the Year,"
admitted in court last week that he tried to help two
clients hide proceeds from illegal drug deals. One was
an informer, the other an undercover federal agent.
Gonzalez faces up to five years in prison and the loss
of his iaw license.
"This was a totally fictitious sting operation with no
real drugs and no real drug money involved," said his
attorney, John Fitzgibbons. "Mr. Gonzalez has had a
distinguished career as a lawyer and civic leader for
almost 35 years and he has accepted responsibility for
his actions as a result of this unfortunate situation."
The charge to which Gonzalez, 66, pleaded guilty —
structuring financial transactions to avoid reporting
requirements — stemmed from his
involvement with a man who acted as a confidential
source for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
In May 2014, the man, who was not named in court
records, walked into Gonzalez's South Tampa law office
and explained that he was expecting to spend two to
three years in federal prison for a pending wire fraud
case, according to the federal plea agreement. The
charge, though, was not his only criminal activity, the
man said. His main business was a marijuana grow house
that he ran with his brother.
netted the man between $30,000 and $50,000 a month, he
told Gonzalez. He asked the lawyer to help him secure a
safe place to put the cash so it would be available to
him after he left prison, court records state.
Gonzalez gave the man advice on setting up a private trust, which would
be accessible only by the two of them, according to the plea agreement.
Gonzalez would then obtain a federal tax identification number and open
bank accounts in the name of the trust. The man's brother would deposit
the illegal funds into the accounts.
After collecting a $4,500 fee to set up the trust and bank account,
Gonzalez met with the man again, along with an undercover DEA agent who
posed as his brother. The agent gave Gonzalez $14,000 cash, $12,000 of
which he later deposited into an account he set up through Fifth Third
Bank, according to the plea agreement. The deposits were made in small
installments so as not trigger the bank's currency transaction reporting
requirement for totals of more than $10,000.
Gonzalez signed a plea agreement that was filed in U.S. District Court
in July, shortly after U.S. attorneys brought charges against him.
His formal guilty plea came just weeks after Tampa Hispanic Heritage
Inc. named him its "Hispanic Man of the Year." The nonprofit umbrella
for local Hispanic groups gives the annual honor to local leaders who
have worked to promote the city's Hispanic heritage.
Gonzalez helped found the group in the 1980s. On Monday, the organizers
said they will rescind Gonzalez's award.
"We are sorry about Joe's problems," said Luz Lono, chair of the gala
committee for Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc. "They were completely
In May, Gonzalez received the Matilda Garcia Leadership Award from the
City of Tampa Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council, of which he was a
Over the years, he also has been a member of the Tampa Police Chief's
Citizens Advisory Committee, the Sheriff's Hispanic Advisory Council,
and the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, among several other
Fitzgibbons said it was likely that Gonzalez would resign from the
Florida Bar. A sentencing date has not been set.