In a televised speech to his country Monday, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding said he would finally turn an alleged international drug lord over to U.S. authorities and offered his "deepest apologies" for dragging out the extradition dispute and hiring Manatt, Phelps & Phillips to lobby in connection with it.
But even as he announced that he was ready to end the nine-month-long standoff over whether Christoper "Dudus" Coke would indeed be extradited to the U.S., Golding continued to insist that it was his ruling Jamaica Labour Party -- not the Jamaican government itself -- that hired Manatt and paid the firm roughly $50,000 to intervene in the matter with U.S. officials.
Nonetheless, Golding, who said his offer to resign his post over the Coke-Manatt matter had been rejected by JLP leaders, said the entire episode had been a mistake and that it was time to move on.
"In hindsight," the prime minister said, 'the party should never have become involved in the way that it did and I should never have allowed it, but I must accept responsibility for it and express my remorse to the nation."
Local media reported late Tuesday that Jamaican officials had in fact signed the extradition order for Coke and obtained an arrest warrant. Other outlets reported that residents of the West Kingston neighborhood the alleged strongman is said to rule had barricaded local streets and were bracing for violence as a result.
Golding's Monday announcement came less than a week after he admitted sanctioning the hiring of Manatt for lobbying help in connection with Coke, indicted last August by federal prosecutors in Manhattan on drug and gun trafficking charges and labeled by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of "the world's most dangerous narcotics kingpins."
Until Monday, Golding had balked at turning Coke over because, he claimed, the wiretap evidence used in the indictment was illegally obtained. His political foes said the real reason for Golding's intransigence was a political alliance between the JLP and Coke and the "Shower Posse" gang he allegedly leads. Both Golding and Coke have their base in Kingston's Tivoli Gardens garrison.
In March, Golding's critics pressed the issue by calling attention to documents filed with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Those FARA filings showed that about a month after the Coke indictment was unsealed, Manatt received a payment of $49,892.62 under an agreement brokered by private Kingston attorney -- and prominent JLP member -- Harold Brady. The pact called for the firm to represent the "Government of Jamaica" on "existing political and economic matters, including existing treaty agreements" between Jamaica and the U.S. The filings further showed that between October 13, 2009, (when the agreement went into effect) and February 8 (when it ended), Manatt had five separate contacts with U.S. State Department officials in connection with unspecified "treaty issues." Separately, Golding has acknowledged, two top government officials -- including Jamaica's solicitor general -- met with a Manatt lawyer in Washington, D.C., while the extradition dispute played out.
Manatt has declined to comment on the details of the work it did under the contract -- except to steadfastly state that its client was indeed the government -- Golding, Brady and other Jamaican officials never denied the firm was brought in specifically for the Coke matter, but maintained it was a JLP initiative. A Manatt spokesman did not reply to a request for comment Tuesday.
On Monday, Golding said he should have been more candid about he entire affair when first asked about it in March.
"When I was asked in Parliament whether the government had engaged the services of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, I answered truthfully and defintively that it had not done so," he said. "It is felt that I should, there and then, have ackowledged the party initiative led by Mr. Brady. On reflection, I should have and tonight I express my profound regret and offer to the Parliament and people of Jamaica my deepest apologies." (Brady declined to comment when contacted by The Am Law Daily Tuesday.)
At least some of Golding's critics were unmoved by those apologies -- and Golding's about-face on the extradition.
"This subterfuge is absolutely unacceptable and should be subject to criminal sanctions," says David Rowe, a former Holland & Knight partner and current Fort Lauderdale solo practitioner who has been critical of the Jamaican government's conduct in the Coke case. "Lobbying should not be done on behalf of fugitives accused of narco-trafficking. The solicitor general of Jamaica is not Coke's lawyer."
Rowe, currently an adjunct law professor at the University of Miami and a registered foreign lobbyist during his time at Holland & Knight, is no stranger to controversial Jamaican extraditions. In arguing that he did nothing wrong in tapping Manatt to help resolve the Coke dispute, Golding specifically cited Rowe's representation of the Jamaican government in what the prime minister labeled a similar conflict 20 years ago involving onetime Shower Posse lieutenant Richard "Storyteller" Morrison.
But Rowe argues that the Morrison matter actually highlights what was amiss in the Coke case. At the time of Coke's indictment by a federal grand jury in Manhattan last August, Rowe says, he should have hired legal counsel in the U.S. to begin the process of fighting extradition, rather than relying on the Jamaican government -- as Manatt's FARA filings indicate -- or the JLP -- as Golding claims -- to represent him.
In any case, Rowe adds, Coke can now fight the extradition in Jamaica's courts, where the appeals process can take up to three years. In an added wrinkle, Coke's attorney of record Tom Tavares-Finson, a well-known Jamaican criminal defense lawyer and government-appointed JLP senator, withdrew from the case Tuesday and was replaced by two other Kingston attorneys, according to local press accounts.
Meanwhile, several U.S. lawyers and registered lobbyists at Am Law 100 firms, all of whom requested anonymity for permission to speak freely, offered varying opinions on how the fallout from the Coke extradition dispute might affect Manatt and the three partners named in the Jamaica FARA filings -- firm founder Charles Manatt, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee and ambassador to the Dominican Republic, international trade partner Susan Schmidt and litigation partner Kevin Di Gregory.
"For those of us who see the pot of gold and don't inquire carefully about where the pot came from, this should serve as a warning," says one partner at a Washington, D.C., firm. "I would like to think I wouldn't have allowed something like this to happen. But if a government comes to you and says they want you to represent a certain position, you're probably going to be more open to it than an individual asking you to help their dope-dealer friend."
Adds another partner: "[Manatt Phelps] has turned down work before for unethical or unethical clients -- it's not a firm that takes anything that comes in the door. Chuck Manatt probably made a mistake and is chagrined by this. He's a very straight-up guy."
A third Am Law partner expressed a bit more skepticism. "We're talking about the proposed extradition of a warlord here, not representing the government on the exports of aluminum!" he says.
As for the actual extradition, a Justice Department spokeswoman told The Am Law Daily that "we are pleased with the decision to instruct the [Jamaican] Attorney General to proceed with the extradition process."
Still, bringing Coke to the U.S. could prove difficult -- and wouldn't necessarily put an end to the illegal activity he is alleged to oversee. His father, Lester Lloyd "Jim Brown" Coke, was a Shower Posse leader during the 1980s; U.S. prosecutors claim the younger Coke moved to the top of the organization after his father died in a 1991 prison fire while awaiting extradition to the U.S.
"The Shower Posse is a far-flung network that operates out of Jamaica, South Florida, and New York," says Baker & McKenzie partner Lee Stapleton, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who handled the government's case against a different Shower Posse leader, Vivian Blake, who, as it happens, was once represented by Rowe. "Even in jail, the criminal enterprise could continue, as [Blake] had lieutenants on the outside running things."
Ten years after he was indicted, Blake pled guilty to various drug offenses and served nine years in prison before being deported to Jamaica, where he died in March.
In a sign of the possible immediate affect of Golding's decision to move forward with Coke's extradition, the U.S. embassy in Kingston issued an alert on Monday night about possible civil unrest throughout Jamaica. The statement urged American citizens in Jamaica to remain close to home and to avoid large crowds and carry cell phones with emergency contact numbers if they did venture out.
David Warner, an associate director in the office of international affairs at the Department of Justice, is handling extradition negotiations with Jamaican officials. Assistant U.S. attorney Jocelyn Strauber, recently named deputy chief of a new drug-terrorism unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, is working on the Coke case from New York.
A spokeswoman for that office declined to comment when contacted by The Am Law Daily, as did a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Miami, where sources say there are sealed grand jury indictments against other Jamaicans implicated in drug smuggling.
This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.