Daniel Neal Heller, 83, Lawyer Who ‘Beat the IRS’
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Daniel Neal Heller, who died August 3 at 83, was a Miami lawyer involved in many high-profile cases, but the best-known was his protracted tax-evasion dispute with the Internal Revenue Service that ended with his winning a $500,000 settlement from the agency. He later boasted of being called “the man who beat the IRS,” and said he donated the money to charity.
Pugnacious and driven, Heller served as general counsel for Miami newspapers, and was credited with winning the first Florida “Sunshine Law” case when he defended a reporter who’d been kicked out of a Miami Beach City Commission meeting and was then arrested. In 1990, he won a Florida-record $17.5 million divorce settlement for Bettina Batchelor, wife of aviation mogul George Batchelor, after threatening to contest a prenuptial agreement the couple had signed.
But he was most famous for the tax matter, which grew out of an exposé the Miami News ran in 1973 of an IRS operation known as Operation Leprechaun, in which the agency collected information on the sexual and drinking activities of politically powerful Floridians. Heller refused to divulge reporters’ sources inside the IRS. Several years later he was audited, and he was convicted in 1987 of tax evasion. He served four months in prison before the case was dismissed on appeal in 1988. Heller won $5 million in damages from his accountant’s insurance carrier after he brought a civil case against the accountant for lying on the stand. He then brought a civil rights suit against the IRS agents who’d investigated him, and the agency ended up settling with him in 1994.
“Their offer was, in effect, an admission of wrongdoing and an apology,” Heller wrote. He claimed that he was the first “wronged taxpayer” to win a payment from the IRS.
A native of Brooklyn born August 12, 1924, Heller attended New York University and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1950. He moved to Miami that year and began his career as an assistant prosecutor, helping to prosecute several local corruption cases that followed in the wake of the Kefauver Committee hearings into organized crime and corruption.
Later, as a lawyer in private practice, he handled big-ticket estates and also donated time to Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Heller was devoted to Jewish causes, and attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961. He served in the 1960s as national commander of the Jewish War Veterans, and orchestrated the group’s activities in support of Soviet Jewry, including a 1964 meeting with Pope Paul VI after which the pontiff promised to pray for “these poor people.”
In a bizarre case in 1980, thieves burgled his home on DiLido Island and made off with paintings and sculpture by Rodin, Renoir, and others valued at more than $1 million. Most of the art was recovered a year later in what the Miami Herald characterized as a “moving-car ransom drop.”
Heller was recommended for disbarment at least once, but was also highly lauded by prominent judges who admired his courtroom demeanor and intensity.
“I so love the combat of being a trial lawyer,” he told the Miami Herald in 2004. “I love contention, dissension. My heart rate and cholesterol drop. I can’t wait to go to the courthouse every day.”
He is survived by his wife of 55 years and four children.