The courtroom as a war zone is an oft-referenced metaphor. For Paul Hastings partner Kirby Behre, who traveled to war-torn Afghanistan in his defense of a client, the allegory took on new meaning.
Behre, a former prosecutor, represented an Afghani contractor who had been accused by the U.S. government in 2008 of paying bribes in order to receive military contracts. Behre traveled to Kabul to gather evidence and depose witnesses for the case, and says that the information he collected there helped to significantly reduce the prison sentence of his client, Assad John Ramin, and his co-defendant and brother, Tahir. The brothers, who were sentenced in early March, received about one-tenth of the time they initially faced.
The two Afghani brothers emigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Both brothers attended school, and after graduating, Assad opened a fast-food joint in 1988, and a taxi company five years later. But after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the brothers returned to their native land. Assad started a trucking business, AZ Corp., and Tahir signed on to work for him. The company scored its first contract with the U.S. military in 2002, and for the next six years, AZ transported freight to troops in Afghanistan.
Their business came to a halt in August 2008, when, according to the joint sentencing memorandum, the Ramins received an invitation by the U.S. government to attend a conference honoring Afghani businesses. When Tahir landed in Chicago, he was promptly arrested. When Assad heard about the arrest, he flew to Chicago to clear up what he thought was a misunderstanding, but he too was arrested.
The brothers were accused of paying a $50,000 bribe to a U.S. serviceman in exchange for help securing a military trucking contract. The government also claimed that the Ramins had operated a front company called Top's Construction to secure additional contracts for AZ, and that they tried to gin up profits by overstating the number of concrete barriers they delivered to the military. After the Chicago indictment, a second, similar indictment was filed in Hawaii. (Both indictments were filed in the home jurisdictions of the military officers involved in the case.) Together, the suits carried potential sentences of up to 16 years.
The Ramins would eventually admit to one count of bribery, but they claimed that they hadn't created a front company or ripped off the U.S. government. Armed with money raised from family members and friends, Assad and Tahir hired Behre and Reed Smith partner Steven Miller for their respective defenses. Behre wouldn't comment on the total cost of the defense, but said that Assad's legal bills alone exceeded $1 million.
By the time Behre and Miller began crafting their case, the small community around Bagram had heard about the government ruse that had brought the Ramins into U.S. custody. As a result, AZ employees and business partners, who were potential witnesses, refused to testify in the U.S. for fear of meeting the same fate.
When witnesses refuse to testify in the U.S., lawyers can either forgo their testimony or depose them overseas, says George Washington Law School professor Stephen Saltzburg, a former U.S. Department of Justice official. Foreign depositions are unusual in criminal cases, and U.S. courts only allow them in "exceptional circumstances," Saltzburg says. He adds that such depositions could become more commonplace in the coming years if the Justice Department gets more aggressive in monitoring U.S. contractors abroad and bringing more prosecutions overseas.
But in 2009, Behre had to fight for approval to depose witnesses outside of the U.S. The Justice Department claimed that Afghanistan was too dangerous, but Behre ultimately convinced a Northern District of Illinois magistrate judge that the depositions were necessary since the events the government alleged occurred wholly in Afghanistan, making testimony from witnesses there paramount to the defense.
In December 2009 Behre traveled to Kabul, where bodyguards provided by his client escorted him around the dusty war zone. The security detail wasn't exactly what he had envisioned: two teenagers carrying rusty machine guns in a Jeep retrofitted with what they claimed were bulletproof windows. "There were cracks in the glass," Behre recalls.