All too often when we read or listen to the daily news, we’re bombarded with stories of rampant financial fraud and other illegal schemes. Whether it is bank fraud, market manipulation, internet fraud, identity theft, romance scams, Medicare fraud, attempts to swindle the elderly, or grifters of every type trying to separate us from our money or property, the endless array of cons seems to merge into an epidemic of corruption.
And while such crimes are not uncommon in the headlines, thankfully they remain a relative rarity among members of the Bar. Most lawyers are honest, hardworking professionals. Nevertheless, there will always be exceptions to the rule that demand our attention. The case of disbarred, indicted former Tallahassee lawyer, Phillip Timothy Howard, and how I helped bring him to justice, is one of those.
There are two types of psychopaths in this world. One who will steal your life and the other who will steal your money. Tim Howard is among the latter. I never in a million years dreamed that my professional career would bring me into the orbit of a true psychopath. The degree of Howard’s narcissistic personality disorder makes him a poster child for a psychopath.
Howard is a charlatan. Someone spouting bible verses while systematically stealing from the most vulnerable among us.
While the full scope of Howard’s story dates to the early 2000s, I’ll begin when I entered the scene in November 2016.
As a solo practitioner handling plaintiffs’ tobacco litigation against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA, Inc. since 2007, I grew tired of the extreme highs and lows caused by my practice’s cash flow fluctuations. Exhausted by the constant battle to balance my income and expenses, I decided to sell my practice, which included hundreds of tobacco claims.
After putting the word out among my colleagues in the tobacco Bar, I was approached with a few offers to pay referral fees for my book of business. Needing a steady paycheck with benefits, however, I declined. Around this time, Howard, whom I had never met, also emailed me offering in principle to give me what I was looking for.
After three months of negotiations, I signed as co-counsel a Joint Prosecution and Fee Sharing Agreement (JPA). Under the terms of the JPA, Howard promised to pay part of the litigation expenses, along with other co-counsel who were involved in litigating “activated” cases at that time. Howard also agreed to provide me with support staff and to pay me a comfortable six-figure salary with benefits. In exchange, I promised to reduce my legals fees in favor of Howard for activated cases that were tried and ultimately paid out.
At the time, the offer sounded reasonable for someone with my years of professional experience, as well as the number of years I had been involved in trying complex tobacco litigation. In other words, the offer did not sound “too good to be true,” as those who become victims of financial scams often lament after it’s too late. After consulting with my lawyer, who had drafted and negotiated the iron clad JPA, I figured what’s the worst that could happen.
In January 2017, after signing the JPA and receiving a signing bonus as agreed, I moved from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale, where I worked from a Howard & Associates satellite office staffed by another attorney and two staff people. As promised, I brought a portfolio of 150 individual Engle-progeny tobacco cases and over 1,000 Broin-progeny flight attendant, secondhand smoking cases.
It did not take long for the sense of safety associated with the move to fall like dominos. Howard missed the very first payroll deposit for me and all his other employees. And that was just the beginning.
Every time I spoke with Howard about payroll, he assured me, “the money is coming, the money is coming.” At one point he even bragged by to me by claiming not to worry because he was getting an infusion of $10 million in operating capital from his “partners” at Virage Capital Management LP, a litigation finance hedge fund headquartered in Houston. With $10 million in capital, Howard could have operated a firm his size for years.
After receipt of the funds, Howard was late paying everyone once again. When I confronted Howard about the situation, he said, “the money was gone.” My brain exploded.
In late 2017, after months of missed payrolls and even a bounced paycheck while I was in a tobacco trial in Escambia County, I filed complaints against Howard with the Florida Bar, FBI, SEC and IRS.
Based on everything I saw and heard around me, I realized that I had unwittingly stepped into the mire of a criminal enterprise and was certain that Howard was engaged in racketeering and money laundering. Perhaps the most suspicious example at the time, aside from consistently missing payroll, was that Howard was compensating all his employees as independent contractors through Mehta Consulting, a consulting firm operated by his then deputy Ankur Mehta.
Later I learned that instead of using the money from Virage to operate a legitimate law firm, Howard was investing in cockamamie schemes like a 3D virtual reality system, a movie production company and a real estate development company. I also discovered from Kimberly Poling, a 28-year-old bookkeeper in our office, that Howard was using IOTA funds to pay the firm’s operating expenses, including making payroll.
The final straw for me, however, was when I later learned that Howard had surreptitiously used my Engle and Broin tobacco cases as collateral for a $30 million line of credit from Virage, which had been extended from the original $10 million, without my knowledge or consent.
It was this epiphany that hit me like a head-on collision with an eighteen-wheeler. Howard merely viewed me as a mark. But Howard messed with the wrong Marine. I vowed not to become a victim. I resolved then and there to make it my mission to bring Howard to justice.
I learned the massive line of credit from Virage was secured by Howard’s 200-plus NFL concussion cases, which according to Virage CEO Ed Ondarza were worth over $60 million.
The use of my Engle cases to backstop the security of Virage’s debt, without my ever signing a single note or security agreement in favor of Virage, would later result in litigation with Howard and Virage in Texas in 2019.
In 2018, I learned that Howard was already under investigation by the FBI and the SEC, both of which had commenced probes into a Ponzi scheme Howard was operating through a hedge fund he controlled known as Cambridge Capital.
With Howard illegally acting as both banker and lawyer for his clients, Howard’s Ponzi scheme targeted over 220 former NFL players seeking compensation from the $1 billion NFL concussion injury fund.
Most of Howard’s NFL clients were suffering from the ravages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). According to the Mayo Clinic, those who contract CTE are driven mad with memory loss, impulsive behavior, aggression, depression, suicidal thoughts, parkinsonism and progressive dementia.
Shamefully, while our gridiron heroes were dying, Howard was stealing their money. Millions of dollars, in fact.
Howard also convinced many of his NFL clients to move their retirement funds from highly secure NFL pension plans to his Cambridge hedge fund, by promising them high returns on their investments.
He then encouraged existing investors to recruit new investors to do the same, so Howard could drain old accounts for his own benefit while replenishing them with fresh funds from new accounts. Howard used the stolen funds to purchase expensive homes, luxury cars and take exotic vacations.
According to a 2022 unsealed indictment, charging Howard with racketeering under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute (RICO), the purpose of his criminal enterprise described a laundry list of illegal activities, including:
“providing legal representation [through Howard & Associates to injured NFL clients] in class action and personal injury litigation [against the NFL], managing investment securities and funds [for his NFL clients], soliciting investors to whom interests in securities and investment funds were sold, engaging in wire fraud to obtain investment proceeds from The Cambridge Entities’ investors, and to lull investors into a sense of security and prevent action which might have interfered with the criminal activities of the Enterprise; engaging in wire fraud to obtain [NFL] settlement advance[s] and litigation expense loan proceeds from third-party lenders, engaging in transactions to spend the proceeds of wire fraud concealing and perpetuating the wire fraud, and increasing the revenue of the Enterprise, and, in turn, enriching [Howard] and associates of the Enterprise.”
Prior to the court unsealing the indictment, Co-NFL-Class Counsel Chris Seeger of the Seeger Weiss law firm, divulged many of the factual findings that would later prove to be the basis for the indictment. This occurred during a hearing on a Motion to Compel financial discovery from Howard, heard by presiding Judge Anita Brody of District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Thereafter, following a court ordered audit by Seeger of Howard’s operations, Seeger circulated a client letter dated August 16, 2018, describing what he uncovered. Of the millions of dollars Howard had stolen, “there is not much cash in the accounts – $237.00 in Cambridge Capital Partners and $998.00 in Cambridge Capital Equity Options,” wrote Seeger, much to the dismay of Howard’s clients. In the end, Seeger could only advise Howard’s victims to report their losses to the authorities.
As Howard dug his fingers deeper into the settlement process, his greed and malevolence knew no bounds.
The NFL Claims Administrator, Brown Greer PLC, also conducted its own audit. Brown Greer then referred its findings to Special Masters David A. Hoffman and Jo-Ann M. Verrier for their investigation.
The Brown Greer’s review uncovered that during the medical evaluation process supporting the claims of the injured players, Howard had employed one Dr. Edwardo Williams, a Tallahassee neurologist whose medical license had been revoked by the Florida Board of Medicine after he had sexually assaulted a female patient.
To perpetrate a scam against the fund, Howard paid Williams a premium to conduct fraudulent psychological evaluations of some of the retired players to overstate their claims for damages, which resulted in an “eighty percent” rate of “Qualifying Diagnoses,” a ratio that “was dramatically higher than typically observed by the [Settlement] Program,” according to the Claims Administrator and Special Masters
On June 22, 2021, the Special Masters submitted a Rule 27 Decision on the Report of Adverse Findings pertaining to Howard & Associates. The Special Masters determined that:
“Howard & Associates misrepresented, omitted, or concealed material facts in connection with claims that may have been submitted to the Claims Administrator. In fact, it is precisely material facts that Howard & Associates went to tremendous lengths to alter. The facts here show that Howard & Associates directed doctors to falsely report Players’ [mental impairment] scores and functional impairment, changed provider names and evaluation dates on medical records such that the reports wrongly appeared to have been performed by doctors with the certifications required by the Settlement, and fabricated medical records in their entirety, each a material breach of the Settlement’s requirements. …
“Howard & Associates engaged in a wide-ranging, long-standing, and brazen pattern and practice of manufacturing evidence for submission to the Settlement Program. … And it submitted Claims to the Program –and sought reimbursement for that work—during the very time that this behavior was ongoing.”
In short, Howard had done everything in his power to disrupt and pilfer millions of dollars from the NFL settlement fund, while depriving those who needed it most, the injured retired players, the compensation they deserved.
At the conclusion of their report, the Special Masters wrote, “Given the substantial amount of resources dedicated to this Audit Proceeding, including significant financial costs to both the NFL Parties and the Claims Administrator, the Claims Administrator will share this Decision, along with the full Record of the Audit Proceeding, with federal criminal authorities.” These findings also became an evidentiary basis for the indictment.
Following submission of the Special Masters’s report, Howard was banned from further participation in the claims process.
Of course, Howard was not a one-man-band in orchestrating his various scams. He was surrounded by a supporting cast of unindicted co-conspirators, whose names I cannot disclose here. Suffice it to say other indictments may be forthcoming.
By January 2018, Howard & Associates was all but out of business. Howard’s lawyers had all left the firm, leaving behind two or three employees in the Tallahassee office.
As for me, I was stranded in Ft. Lauderdale. Howard hadn’t paid me in months, so I did not have the money to move back to Miami to be with my family. Nor could I find work elsewhere given that Howard and Virage had tied up my cases. I literally had to rely on the kindness of strangers during this time just to eat. I borrowed small sums of money from friends and family to buy groceries, gas and to pay my electric bill.
Had it not been for the generosity of an older gentleman who ran a mom-and-pop café in the building where Howard’s offices were located, I might have gone days without food. He allowed me to buy my lunch on credit and made sure I had enough left over for dinner. Thanks to Howard, at the age of 60, I was a poor man in a suit.
By refusing to pay me, Howard not only was stealing money from me, he also was taking food from the mouths of my children. I would not allow this to stand.
On April 5, 2018, out of the blue Howard told me that I should look for work elsewhere because he could not predict when another round of funding would come from Virage. This, after months of Howard and Virage promising I would receive my money “any day.”
In response, I sent a demand letter via email to the principals of Virage and Howard asking for payment within 48 hours. I shared that I would sue them both for fraud and for misappropriating my portfolio of tobacco cases, file a complaint against Virage with the SEC, which is a SEC regulated corporation, and file a Bar complaint against Virage’s Marty Shellist, Ondarza’s second in command. That got their attention.
The next afternoon, Virage’s CEO Ed Ondarza visited me in Ft. Lauderdale. We sat down for nearly five hours at a Starbucks on Broward Boulevard. I explained what the last two years with Howard had been like. That Howard was using his law firm as a front for laundering money and stealing money from clients and that Howard had stolen my case list and pledged it as collateral for Virage’s $30 million line of credit.
None of that seemed to phase Ondarza. By the end of the day on April 6, 2018, Ondarza, Howard and I had cranked out a Confidential Settlement Agreement (CSA), wherein Virage agreed to pay me most of my backpay and place me on a salary with benefits for one year if I continued to work on my tobacco cases as I’d done under the JPA. The money would be booked as a loan to Howard.
In early 2018, the FBI also contacted me to ask if I would like to work as a confidential informant with the Agent in Charge, who was investigating Howard’s use of his law firm to run a criminal enterprise. I jumped at the opportunity.
Initially, I mostly shared with the AIC anecdotal evidence of Howard’s illicit activities, as well as emails and Bar complaints against Howard, which were readily accessible.
A year after signing the CSA, when Virage stopped paying me, I declared my obligations under the contract over. Howard and Virage, in turn, filed a declaratory action against me in Houston, asking a judge to interpret the CSA to mean Howard would have an interest in my fees from my tobacco cases in perpetuity. A notion I found to be abhorrent, especially when I would not be getting paid.
In the declaratory action, Howard was the plaintiff and Virage was the intervenor.
It was then that things got interesting. Document production in the case generated 21,957 pages, which I handed over to the FBI after receiving a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Florida. Those documents did not include the thousands of pages of deposition testimony given by the parties and witnesses in the case.
While the Texas litigation was stalled for nearly two years due to the Covid shutdown, the FBI continued its investigation of Howard.
During this time, the FBI began interviewing former employees of Howard, all of whom were more than willing to speak with the authorities.
One of Howard’s long-time employees, Tom Woods, whose official title was Director of Claims Administration hoped to cut a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He agreed to testify against Howard if the government would grant him immunity. Unfortunately, Wood’s timing was premature; the U.S. Attorney was not interested in cutting deals at that time and refused Wood’s request.
Tragically, Woods spiraled into a deep depression. Having been duped out of his life savings by Howard in some ridiculous investment scheme and feeling there was no way to avoid prison, Woods committed suicide, leaving an ex-wife and adult children behind.
In light of Woods’ suicide, a friend once asked whether I ever felt my safety to be at risk. Since Howard had already stolen what he wanted from me and his crew was closer to The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight than John Gotti’s thugs, I never felt threatened by them.
However, on January 28, 2020, Burke McDavid, Virage’s chief compliance officer, sent a memo to Virage Investors accusing me of “orchestrating” a press attack against Virage, following the publication of an article by Bill Myers titled, Lawyer goes sideways in NFL, drags hedge fund into spotlight.
Given that I knew from Ondarza’s deposition that Virage funneled its money from investors into its limited partnerships through the Cayman Islands, indeed, I considered my safety at risk and still do. But this concern has only caused me to redouble my effort in my fight for justice.
The Florida Bar was also slowly but surely moving forward with its prosecution of Howard on two complaints filed against him. Following a court appointed referee’s Report and Recommendation, submitted April 15, 2021, the Referee declared that Howard should be permanently disbarred. Thereafter, Howard was officially disbarred March 24, 2022.
In January 2023, the federal court in the Northern District of Florida unsealed the indictment charging Howard with Racketeering, including money laundering, wire fraud and operating a Ponzi scheme under RICO. By then, the SEC had banned Howard from further participating in the securities industry and fined him nearly $400,000 in restitution, which would partially be used to reimburse his defrauded clients.
In June 2022, four years after filing the declaratory action against me, the case was finally heard before a state court judge in Houston. At issue was whether, under the CSA signed by the parties in April 2018, Howard & Associates was entitled to a percentage of my legal fees from my Engle cases in perpetuity, even though Howard was disbarred and could no longer be retained by any client going forward.
I flew down to prepare for the trial. I was represented by attorney Eric Lipper of the 100-year-old Hirsch & Westheimer firm. Quite frankly, Lipper is a legal genius and one of the wiliest commercial litigators I have ever had the privilege of knowing in my almost 40 years of practice; the quickest draw in the West. And his partner retired Judge Jeff Shadwick is a close second.
Howard chose to appear via Zoom. Howard was represented by Houston attorney Ashish Mahendru, whose legal fees were paid for by Virage.
Virage, on the other hand, was represented by Houston lawyer Geoffrey Harrison of Sussman Godfrey. With at least 10 associates and staff, both in court and watching on livestream back at the office, Harrison came loaded for bear for a simple declaratory action.
Virage had assembled a paddock full of witnesses aligned against me. During opening statements, Lipper suggested to the judge that he did not need to take testimony from any witnesses for a case involving a straightforward interpretation of a contract. The judge agreed. So the experts were sent packing, as were all the other witnesses waiting to testify.
During the two-day trial, the judge seemed to take particular pleasure in taking Harrison to the woodshed every day, much to my amusement and that of my trial team and every other litigator in town watching on the internet.
Since there was a prevailing party attorney’s attorneys’ fees provision in the contract, each side had to produce their time records. When the judge heard that Harrison’s team had billed Virage more than $1 million for a glorified summary judgement proceeding, he went ballistic. By contrast, my attorneys’ fees were $250,000 or so.
Weeks later, the judge entered a final judgment against me. The judge delivered Howard a shocking victory, allowing him to take a percentage of my Engle and Broin legal fees forever, in deliberate disregard for every law and ethical rule in the country prohibiting the sharing of unearned legal fees with disbarred lawyers.
Luckily, for me, my lawyers filed a notice of appeal before the ink on the final judgment was dry. We are hoping to overturn this injustice expeditiously.
While the full story has yet to be told, the most important lessons I have learned are simple but important ones. There are two sacrosanct rules lawyers must follow: first, always maintain candor with the court, and second, report wrongdoing when you see it. Failing to report misconduct is an ethical violation in itself, which could implicate a lawyer who witnesses it but fails or refuses to report it to the proper authorities.
Although I had to dig down deep to persevere, rallying others to help bring Howard to justice and witnessing their bravery in doing so, gave me the courage to carry on.
Heroes like 28-year-old bookkeeper Kim Poling, who blew the whistle on Howard for misusing his IOTA trust fund to pay operating expenses; Margaret Peggy Harris whose case against the tobacco companies Howard let languish while her husband lay dying while waiting for trial; Dana Hall and Sandra Fulup whose money Howard stole from their deceased husband’s and son’s estate, after he was killed in a motorcycle accident; Jasminka Ilich-Ernst, a retired FSU professor who lost her life savings in a Howard-run real estate scam; and, of course, the NFL players left destitute while dying, along with so many other victims, who were not only willing to file Bar complaints against Howard, but were also eager to speak with the FBI. These folks are all heroes in my book.
Likewise for the individuals I came to know in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the Florida Bar, who worked tirelessly to bring Howard to justice, all earned my highest admiration. Especially, individuals like the FBI’s Agents in Charge, and Shanee Hinson, the Bar’s Chief Prosecutor and her staff of investigators.
As a social justice warrior who has dedicated much of my profession to suing the cigarette industry and other corrupt organizations, I realized the mission I was on to bring Howard to justice may be the most important professional accomplishment of my career, and it is not over yet.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of J.B. Harris, and are not the opinions of Attorney at Law Magazine. The facts of this article have not been validated by Attorney at Law Magazine. Please contact J.B. Harris for access to any cited material.