The trial began Monday in the prosecution of Robert Simels, a prominent Manhattan defense attorney charged with plotting with a client to threaten and bribe witnesses to prevent them from testifying.
"A license to practice law is not a license to break the law," Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel D. Brownell told the federal jury before an overflowing courtroom in Brooklyn. In defending his client, drug kingpin Shaheed Khan, Simels employed a "win at all costs" strategy, promoting a plan of bribes and intimidation to ensure Khan's acquittal, Brownell said.
"When Simels said, 'I'm going to do whatever it takes to get him out of there,'" Brownell said, "that was no idle boast."
In Simels' defense, attorney Gerald Shargel, repeated a mantra: "Words don't always convey intention and meaning."
An attorney's job, Shargel said, is to build up a defense for a client, to interview witnesses and learn everything there is to know about a case. So when a paid informant -- encouraged by $50,000 and a U.S. visa -- suggested to Simels that witnesses could be bribed or made to "suffer from amnesia," Simels played along simply to "keep the conversation going," Shargel said.
"Mr. Simels knows that the art of extracting information from people is carefully honed," Shargel told the jury. But no matter what was said to string along the government's source, he added, there was "never an intention, never a design or a plan" to tamper with witnesses.
Khan was indicted in the Eastern District of New York in April 2006 and charged with heading the Phantom Squad, a Guyana-based paramilitary drug cartel that smuggled and distributed cocaine to Brooklyn.
Khan hired Simels, a defense attorney known for representing high-profile drug dealers and members of organized crime families -- including Henry Hill, the mobster played by Ray Liotta in "GoodFellas" -- to represent him.
According to an affidavit filed by a special agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration, soon thereafter Simels met with a member of the Phantom Squad, a government informant who recorded their conversations, and advised him that Khan would need to "eliminate" or "neutralize" potential witnesses.
In one excerpt from the recordings, the informant allegedly told Simels that one potential witness wanted $10,000 in order to sign a contract agreeing to testify in favor of Khan.
"Tell her that obviously she can't get any money until she meets with me, but I'll make the agreement with her," Simels allegedly replied. "She's got to meet with me. If she does it and she signs the document, she gets half then and she gets half when she, ah, finishes testifying."
In March, Khan pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking and witness tampering in exchange for a 15-year sentence.
Simels, 62, faces up to 10 years in prison.
His associate, Arienne Irving, was also charged with tampering with and threatening witnesses and is being tried alongside Simels. She is represented by Javier Solano, a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney.
Khan's and Simels' cases have received enormous attention in Guyana, a country of 770,000 people on the northern coast of South America, where Khan is part menace, part folk hero.