Paul Bergrin, a Newark, N.J., criminal defense lawyer accused of being at the center of a criminal enterprise, pleaded not guilty in federal court on Monday to a raft of charges that include murder and drug trafficking.
The superseding indictment presented to U.S. District Judge William Martini in Newark almost tripled to 39 the original 14 counts lodged against the former federal and Essex County prosecutor, who was arrested six months ago. It also added three more codefendants, for a total of seven.
One of the new codefendants is Bergrin's girlfriend, Yolanda Jauregui, who authorities say played a significant role in the criminal enterprise. She pleaded not guilty to 10 counts, including conspiracy and attempted murder of a witness.
On top of earlier charges that he engaged in drug trafficking, prostitution and mortgage fraud, arranged the murder of a witness in one drug case and tried to have an informant killed in another, Bergrin stands charged with interstate travel in aid of bribery and trafficking.
Several of the new charges against Bergrin stem from a trip he made to Chicago allegedly to hire a hitman to murder a cooperating witness who was set to testify against Bergrin's client in a Monmouth County, N.J., drug case. The Nov. 10 superseding indictment alleges that Jauregui had her suspicions that the hitman was an informant, and she talked of having him killed, then "boxed and sent home."
Other new charges against Bergrin include his $3,000 payment to induce a witness, identified as M.P., to change his testimony in a criminal case against Bergrin's client, R.J. Bergrin relied on help from Jauregui, who found another person to phone M.P. and convince him to change his testimony, and Jauregui and codefendant Thomas Moran, another Newark attorney, assisted in making payment to M.P., the indictment alleges.
Bergrin and Jauregui are also charged in the superseding indictment with operating a narcotics "stash house" at Isabella's International Restaurant in Newark where multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine and the proceed of cocaine sales allegedly were stored.
Bergrin, an Assistant U.S. Attorney from 1985 until 1990 and an assistant Essex County prosecutor before that, also faces additional charges in connection with his involvement in an escort service, New York Confidential. In May, Bergrin pleaded guilty to a charge in New York Supreme Court of conspiracy to promote prostitution and was sentenced to time served. Authorities say he took over management of the prostitution ring when his client, Jason Itzler, was jailed and was unable to run the business.
In the latest charges, the government says Bergrin falsely represented to the New Jersey Parole Board that Itzler was employed by his law firm. That was designed to allow Itzler to evade a parole board restriction on leaving the state and run the prostitution bsuiness in New York.
The government has also filed counts for the forefeiture of a residence in Nutley, N.J., and the Newark restaurant, both owned by Jauregui, and more than $1.1 million in cash.
Bergrin, who at previous hearings had a headful of dark hair, had lots of gray mixed in when he appeared before Martini on Monday, wearing a white undershirt and blue prison pants.
Martini set a discovery schedule and said he hoped to start the trial on June 1, but said the date could be set back if the Justice Department seeks the death penalty for Bergrin. The judge instructed Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gay to tell the department to decide by March 1 whether to seek capital punishment. Gay said his office would issue a recommendation by Jan. 2 and the department would then take 30 days to make its own recommendation.
Also arraigned before Martini on Monday were six others who the government says played roles in Martini's criminal enterprise. All six pleaded not guilty. Martini said the eight defendants would be brought from their various locations to a holding facility in Newark on Dec. 16 so they could be present for a joint meeting of the defense lawyers in the case.
Bergrin did have one victory in court recently. On Nov. 12, Martini granted his application to be moved from solitary confinement and into the general prison population. Martini granted the motion of Bergrin's lawyers, Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons in Newark and David Ruhnke of Ruhnke & Barrett in Montclair, who said their client's mental state was deteriorating from being kept in a windowless cell 23 hours a day, hampering his ability to participate in his own defense.