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Tyrone Smith was already facing up to 15 years in a federal penitentiary for distributing narcotics when he first met his court-appointed attorney, Fritz Scheller.
As a Black man who had been previously incarcerated, Smith knew that his chances of getting a lesser prison sentence were slim. Still, he asked his new lawyer to try to get the penalty reduced to five years.
Scheller refused. He said he could do even better, Smith recalled in a recent interview with Insider about his 2018 case.
In court, Scheller argued to the judge that Smith was more than just a repeat offender. He talked about Smith’s time as a high school athlete and the financial difficulties he faced growing up that forced him to drop out of the 10th grade and sell drugs to support his family.
The judge later acknowledged that Smith had “significant redeeming characteristics” and ended up giving him a prison sentence of just two and a half years.
This was a classic case for Scheller, a 55-year old Florida defense lawyer whose website features a famous Dalai Lama quote: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.”
In an interview, Scheller told Insider that he believes that “compassion” is always a part of his core mission when he’s advising clients or trying a case before a judge.
‘The most interesting man alive’
Scheller is now in the news for a different client you may have heard of.
He’s representing Joel Greenberg, the former local tax collector from Florida who is reportedly cooperating with federal prosecutors as part of a sex trafficking investigation into Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz.
Greenberg is facing 33 federal charges and, if convicted, an extraordinary number of years behind bars. But his assistance to the Justice Department could end up drastically reducing his sentence while potentially ending the career of a three-term congressman from the Sunshine State’s Panhandle, who built his reputation by being one of Donald Trump’s most fierce cable TV defenders.
That’s where Scheller comes into the picture. The longtime defense attorney is well known in Orlando’s legal circles as the lawyer to call when someone is in a bind. Of the 14 federal trials he has worked on, he has gotten seven acquittals and two hung juries.
“He’s like the most interesting man alive,” George Couture, an attorney who has known Scheller for more than 20 years, told Insider. “He can squeeze blood from a stone. He can throw a curveball in outer space when it comes to the courtroom.”
Ties to Bloomberg and the Pulse nightclub shooting
Scheller is no stranger to representing well-known clients.
He was a part of the team of lawyers who represented Noor Salman, the widow of the man who shot up Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016, that left 49 people dead. Salman was accused of helping her husband plan the attack, but was later acquitted of those charges.
“I didn’t sleep at all with the Noor Salman case,” Scheller recalled to Insider. “As an advocate, if you think you have an innocent person, or you know you have an innocent person, you think ‘oh my god, if I screw up, or I don’t do the right thing, or I made a mistake, we’re going to have an innocent person in jail.'”
Scheller comes from a long line in the legal profession. Four of his sibling’s practice law, and his grandfather was a judge in Wisconsin. He’s now been in the family business for more than 20 years, including the last decade defending individuals from across the political spectrum.
His law firm focuses on cases involving white-collar crimes, the IRS, child pornography, and myriad of other legal issues. At the federal level, he operates mainly around his home base in central Florida, though he has also taken on cases in Washington, DC, and New York, too.
Even though Scheller represents Greenberg, who was known as a staunch Trump supporter, public records show Scheller has financially contributed in the past to campaigns of Democratic candidates, including former President Barack Obama in 2008.
Now Scheller’s work could take down Gaetz, an outspoken Republican lawmaker who burnished his own reputation through vehement support of the now-former president.
It’s also not the only high-profile political case that has Scheller duking it out with Trump’s world. Another client is Desmond Meade, a prominent voting rights activist in Florida who worked during the 2020 presidential campaign to get previously incarcerated people registered to vote.
Trump went after Meade’s organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, after the former Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg announced that he raised nearly $16 million to donate to FRRC. At one point, the president of the United States said what Meade’s group was doing was “a felony.”
That comment helped sparked Republican leaders to call for a federal investigation into Meade’s work. Larry Klayman, an outspoken conservative who runs the group Freedom Watch, even filed a lawsuit against Bloomberg, the Florida organization, the Biden for President organization, and others about the anticipated donation. However, nothing has come from the lawsuit at this time.
All eyes on the Greenberg case
Many will be watching how Scheller handles the Greenberg case as more details continue to unfold about Greenberg’s involvement in the Gaetz investigation into sex trafficking.
Robert Buschel, a South Florida-based defense attorney who represented Roger Stone during his recent federal criminal proceedings, said the best-case scenario is for Scheller to finalize a plea deal for Greenberg in order to get his client a lesser jail sentence.
Bushel added that Greenberg might have leverage in this situation depending on how long he cooperated with prosecutors and the information he provided about the congressman.
Earlier this month, The Daily Beast reported that in 2018, Gaetz sent two Venmo transactions to Greenberg amounting to $900. The outlet stated that the following day, Greenberg sent three separate Venmo transactions to three young women totaling $900.
These recorded transactions may make Greenberg a key witness in building a solid case against Gaetz if there is enough evidence that he broke the law.
“You can interview ten more defense attorneys, and they will say the same thing. Unless you win everything outright, it is best to take a plea deal,” he said.
Gaetz has denied he did anything illegal, saying that the sex-related allegations against him “are as searing as they are false.”
‘I’m not saying he’s Jesus’
Scheller doesn’t just litigate cases. He also hosts training seminars for defense attorneys on a wide variety of issues.
“I’m not saying he’s Jesus,” Couture, an attorney advisor at Defender Services, told Insider. “He really likes to train other people and pass on the knowledge.”
Scheller told Insider that the cases that stick with him the most aren’t the high-profile ones that get media attention; it’s the court-appointed cases that he takes on like Smith’s case.
Even though the judge’s ruling on Smith happened more than three years ago, Scheller said he thinks about it nearly every day.
“He had such great qualities, and he had such great potential,” Scheller said. “And because he was born into poverty and because of his race, all these opportunities were closed off.”