A federal prosecutor opened the federal money-laundering trial of criminal defense lawyer J. Mark Shelnutt on Tuesday by asking the jury, "Why would a lawyer ask a secretary to run some cash through her checking account? Why would he give her a box of $7,000 in cash and ask her to write [him] a check and give him money back?"
That transaction, said Special Attorney to the U.S. Attorney General Carlton R. Bourne Jr., illustrates Shelnutt's crossover from honest advocate for Columbus, Ga.'s largest drug trafficker to a willing partner in the drug trafficking conspiracy.
"He crossed the line," Bourne said of Shelnutt, "because of the lure of big money."
Shelnutt defense counsel Thomas A. Withers countered in an hourlong opening statement to the jury that it was federal agents and prosecutors, not Shelnutt, who had lost their way. In making Shelnutt the target of a criminal investigation, Withers told the jury, "the government has lost its legal compass, has lost its sense of right and wrong."
The evidence supporting the government's 40-count indictment charging Shelnutt with 30 counts of money laundering and aiding and abetting a drug conspiracy "will shock you," Withers said, "not because of anything this man has done ... but because of the lengths to which the government has gone for the purpose of trying to get Mr. Shelnutt."
U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land is presiding over the trial.
A federal grand jury in Columbus indicted Shelnutt last May, charging him with laundering and conspiring to launder more than $40,000 in funds derived from illicit drug deals that the attorney was paid to defend drug trafficker Torrance "Bookie" Hill and members of Hill's Columbus drug ring.
Shelnutt was also charged with making false statements to a federal agent, failing to file an IRS form required for all cash transactions over $10,000 and witness tampering by attempting to influence the testimony of his secretary before the grand jury.
Shelnutt also faces a charge of attempting to bribe a federal prosecutor by offering him two University of Georgia football tickets at face value.
Bourne, an Assistant U.S. Attorney from Georgia's Southern District, is leading the prosecution of Shelnutt for the U.S. Attorney of Georgia's Middle District, which includes Columbus. The Middle District office recused because the assistant prosecutor who is the subject of the alleged bribery attempt works in that office.
At about 20 minutes, Bourne's opening statement was one-third the length of the defense's opening.
During that time, Bourne told the jury that Shelnutt aided and abetted Hill's drug conspiracy by trying "to keep control over members of the conspiracy" after their arrests in May 2005 in what became the largest drug bust in Columbus' history.
Shelnutt, who represented or arranged counsel for a number of accused members of Hill's operation, "urged people to stick together and not reveal his involvement," Bourne said.
The lawyer, he added, also got a list from Hill of drug dealers who owed Hill money from drug deals, directed the collection of that money, had it brought to him as payment for defending Hill, and then failed in two cases to file a federal cash reporting form (known as IRS Form 8300).
That failure to report those cash payments and the instance in which he gave his secretary the box of cash and she later repaid him with a check marked Shelnutt's efforts "to make dirty money look clean," Bourne said.
Shelnutt also used the cash to make payments on a $485,000 property he shared with several other investors in Florida and deposit funds into his then-wife's personal bank account, Bourne said. He also stored more cash in bank safety deposit boxes, Bourne added.
When his secretary, Joanne Strickland, was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury investigating Shelnutt, the prosecutor said, "He took her aside and tried to get her to lie" by insisting that the box containing the cash was a loan.
Bourne insisted that there was no evidence that the money was a loan, saying Shelnutt "tried to tamper with the witness to get her to give false testimony before the grand jury."