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Massive Indictment Charges Former Justice Official and 58 Others With Racketeering


September 1995

In an indictment unsealed on June 5, the government charged three criminal defense lawyers, including a former high-level Justice Department official, and 56 others with being members of a racketeering enterprise, namely the Rodriguez-Orejuela faction of the Cali cocaine cartel.

Among the charges in the 161-page indictment are allegations that the three lawyers and three other lawyers who have previously pleaded guilty "prepared false affidavits, delivered drug money to pay legal fees and warned their clients of pending charges." In addition, they were charged with helping to launder drug proceeds, hindering prosecutions, fabricating evidence, intimidating government witnesses, and revealing the identity of an informant who investigators say was later murdered by a cartel hitman.

The lawyers are also charged with participating in the conspiracy that allegedly imported more than 220 tons of cocaine, a charge that carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The money laundering charges stem from alleged incidents when the lawyers accepted money from the drug cartel and paid other lawyers with those funds.

The indictment says that the lawyers were commissioned to visit arrested cartel operatives in jail and persuade them not to reveal information about their employers. According to the indictment, the lawyers were sent to "reinforce the member's knowledge of the enterprise's power and ability to retaliate against its members as a consequence of cooperation with law enforcement."

Michael Abbell, 54, was chief of the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs in the early 1980s. When he left in 1984, the Justice Department granted him a waiver of potential conflict of interest that permitted him to begin representing suspected cartel figures such as Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and Jose Santacruz Londono. The indictments charge that Abbell took false statements from cartel figures, accepted drug funds to pay for attorney's fees, and falsified documents.

Suspected cartel co-founders Santacruz and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela were also charged in the indictment. They already face a number of charges in the U.S. It is believed they are living in Colombia, but since Colombia has not had an extradition treaty with the U.S. since 1991, Santacruz and Rodriguez will probably not be returned to the U.S. to face these charges.

Miami U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey said the indictment of Santacruz and Rodriguez "takes the battle of investigation and prosecution against the Cali cartel as far as it can go without multinational cooperation and assistance."

Criminal defense attorney William Mitchell Moran, 56, was also named in the indictment. Among other charges, Moran is accused of revealing the identity of a government informant to his client. The informant was later murdered.

Donald Lee Ferguson, 48, also a criminal defense lawyer, was an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami in the 1970s. He pleaded guilty on July 3 to charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and money laundering, and has reportedly agreed to cooperate with the government. Ferguson was a sole practitioner in Miami.

At his hearing, Ferguson told Judge William M. Hoeveler he did not know he was laundering money for Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela when he delivered $75,000 in drug profits. He said later he realized his activity was illegal.

Ferguson could have faced seven to nine years in prison, but his attorney Neal Sonnett said he will argue for less than the minimum under the Guidelines. Sonnett said the government's case is built upon informants' "web of lies."

Three lawyers, although not charged in the indictment. have pleaded guilty to charges related to the case. Francisco A. Laguna, 33, pleaded guilty in pril 1995 to one count of conspiring to import cocaine and one count of obstruction of justice. He is now in a federal witness protection program. Laguna is believed to be a major government witness against Abbell and Moran. Laguna worked in Miami for attorney Robert Lewis Moore and Abbell's Washington-based law firm of Ristau and Abbell.

Moore, 46, a former federal public defender, and Joel N. Rosenthal, 48, a former assistant U.S. attorney, have each pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering.

The accused lawyers claim they were providing their clients conscientious legal representation, but the indictment says the lawyers participated in illegal acts. Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick said in a statement that the attorneys' action in the case "goes far beyond zealous representation of a client."

Abbell had investigated Jose Santacruz Londono when Abbell was chief of the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs in the early 1980s. Soon after he left Justice in 1984, he helped Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela fight extradition from Spain to the U.S. In 1988, he lobbied the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to make it harder for the U.S. to extradite suspected cartel figures.

On Capitol Hill, some legislators expressed shock and anger upon learning of the charges in the indictments. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) said it was inappropriate for Abbell to be "providing expertise to major cocaine traffickers that he obtained while he was working for the U.S. Justice Department."

Criminal defense attorneys complained that the case highlights troubling breeches of attorney-client confidentiality by the government and searches and seizures in law offices (Saundra Torry, "Defense Counselors Say Probe Attacks Lawyer-Client Relationship," Washington Post, June 6, 1995, p. A16).

Some observers noted the inclusion in the indictment of criminal defense lawyers reminded them of the Federal prosecution of Patrick Hallinan, a well-respected San Francisco criminal defense attorney who was acquitted of obstruction of justice and drug conspiracy charges on March 7 (see "Defense Attorney Acquitted of Conspiracy Charges," NewsBriefs, April 1995).

"The fact that we're seeing cases of this magnitude more frequently has a chilling effect on defense lawyers," said Gerald Goldstein, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It makes us all more concerned that aggressive lawyering is being misinterpreted by the government as criminal activity."

The government has reportedly been working on this case for over 10 years, but was aided by a number of recent events.

In 1991, investigators intercepted a shipment of pilings and masonry from Venezuela in the Port of Miami, finding 12,250 kilos of cocaine hidden in the concrete. They followed them to Texas, where they were picked up by cartel manager Gustavo Naranjo. Agents arrested him on November 18.

On November 26, a suspected cartel official wired $65,000 to lawyer Rosenthal. That day, Rosenthal met with Naranjo in jail and allegedly asked him not to cooperate with the government, as "Naranjo knew what would happen if he did cooperate." Rosenthal then hired a local lawyer for Naranjo, paying the lawyer with the wired funds.

Harold Ackerman, the suspected Cali cartel "ambassador" to the U.S., was sentenced to a life term in April 1992 for smuggling 22 tons of cocaine. Ackerman is believed to be another of the cartel operatives pressured by the lawyers to not cooperate with the government.

The National Drug Strategy Network has obtained a copy of this indictment. If you would like a copy, send $20 to cover expenses.

[For more information on this story, see Fredric Dannen, "The Thin White Line," The New Yorker, July 31, 1995, p. 30-34; Associated Press, "Ex-Prosecutor Pleads Guilty in Cali Cartel Probe," Washington Post, July 4, 1995, p. A10; Jim McGee, "Ex-Prosecutors Indicted in Cali Case," Washington Post, June 6, 1995, p. 1; Peter Levin and Rachel L. Swarns, "Drive Against Cartel Puts Lawyers in Harsh Spotlight," Miami Herald, June 9, 1995, p. 1; Stan Yarbro, "Cali Indictmen a Case of Lawyer vs. Lawyer," Legal Times, June 12, 1995, p. 12; "Miami Indictment of Six Lawyers Ignites Storm of Controversy," Drug Enforcement Report, June 8, 1995, p. 1.]