Dr. Yorai “Benny” Benzeevi – former CEO of the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) now facing dozens of criminal charges resulting from alleged abuse of power during his tenure – has fired his criminal defense attorneys three years into the case.
According to public documents, a request for a substitution of attorneys in the Benzeevi case was filed on May 4. Nina Marino and Jennifer Lieser of the Los Angeles-based Kaplan-Marino law firm are now listed as the attorneys of record for Benzeevi. The firm specializes in white-collar criminal defense, according to its website.
Benzeevi was formerly represented by one-time US Attorney McGregor Scott. Scott appears to no longer be directly involved in Benzeevi’s defense.
Benzeevi Facing Dozens of Felony Charges
It is unclear to outside observers why Benzeevi chose to make a change in his representation this late into the process of defending himself. He was originally charged in August of 2020.
Benzeevi faces 46 individual criminal counts, all stemming from his time working as CEO for the TLHCD through his company Health Care Conglomerate Associates (HCCA), which managed the Tulare Regional Medical Center (TRMC). TRMC is now operated independently as Adventist Tulare. The bulk of the charges involve alleged embezzlement from the TLHCD while working as a public officer.
Benzeevi also faces multiple felony counts relating to his conflicts of interest while heading the TLHCD. Additionally, he faces several misdemeanor charges alleging various violations of the Political Reform Act.
According to Visalia defense attorney John Sarsfield, removing Scott from the case was a likely mistake.
“(Hiring Scott) was the first really smart thing Benzeevi did,” Sarsfield said. “He’s a great, great lawyer.”
Scott was a US attorney for the US District Court for the Eastern District of California under presidents George W. Bush (2003-2009) and Donald Trump (2017-2021). He was the Shasta County District Attorney from 1997 to 2003. Scott is now a partner with, King and Spalding, an international corporate law firm based in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I would go with Greg Scott if I were in trouble,” Sarfield said.
Change Counsel is the Defendant’s Choice
After apparently dropping Scott, Benzeevi retained the services of attorneys Marino and Lieser. What prompted the switch is not clear.
According to another LA-based criminal defense attorney who is not associated with Benzeevi’ s case and wishes to remain anonymous, the reason for changing representation, especially this late in a proceeding, is likely a loss of confidence in the former defense team.
“The principle is you feel that counsel has not been performing, and perhaps even more directly, you feel as a defendant there are specific questions of law, or evidence. that haven’t been preserved or addressed adequately,” he said.
The switch is probably not an attempt to delay the start of the trial phase, he added.
“One of the things the judge is likely to do is hold a hearing to confirm this is not a situation of delay, that this really does address adequacy of representation,” he said.
The judge – in this case the Hon. Michael Sheltzer – must determine if the change in attorneys is warranted and not merely a legal tactic.
Sheltzer was appointed to the bench by Gov. Edmund G. Brown in 2013. Formerly, Sheltzer worked in a variety of roles for the Tulare County Public Defender’s Office from 1990 to 2002
Benzeevi’s New Defense Team Offers Different Approach
The Kaplan-Marino firm’s website describes Marino as able to highlight “shades of gray” in the prosecuting attorneys’ arguments via “non-traditional approaches.”
Her online biography describes her this way:
[Marino] regularly negotiates with and litigates against the U.S. Department of Justice, local district attorneys, and other government agencies in her defense of people investigated or charged with matters involving healthcare fraud, international extradition, cybercrime, money laundering, customs violations, tax crimes, Ponzi schemes, public corruption, and regulatory issues involving cryptocurrency.
Lieser is described as handling client defense with a “holistic” approach. The website notes her expertise in behind-the-scenes negotiations and discusses her reframing of how the law applies to her clients specific situations.
[Lieser] practices at the national level, focusing on federal and state bribery and kickback matters, fraud, money laundering, cybercrime, cryptocurrency regulatory issues, international extradition and other white collar and complex criminal matters.
Lieser worked formerly for the Orange County Public Defender’s Office. Marino’s biography does not list similar work experience.
Marino and Lieser will make their next appearance on Benzeevi’s behalf on Friday, June 2. At issue is the date and time of Benzeevi’s preliminary hearing. If a plea bargain is being offered to Benzeevi, it will be presented during the preliminary hearing. The judge may also make rulings on requests for expert witnesses and independent testing related to the case.