Nearly two dozen executives in the arms-dealing business were in Las Vegas en route to meet a supposed defense minister from Gabon when FBI agents moved in. Twenty-one were arrested, accused of offering bribes to a foreign official.
Last week, lawyers for the defendants, and some of the executives themselves, piled into the ceremonial courtroom of the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington to hash out disputes about evidence and the scope of the case -- the government's most ambitious and controversial Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecution.
The result of a two-year investigation, the indictment of 22 arms-industry executives has been touted by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer as the "cornerstone" of the department's ramped-up efforts to weed out foreign corruption.
So far, the defense team -- including lawyers from DLA Piper, O'Melveny & Myers, Washington-based Steptoe & Johnson, Chicago-based Mayer Brown, New York's Kobre & Kim and Reed Smith, among other firms -- has remained united while fighting the conspiracy and money laundering charges. But that could change soon.
Justice Department fraud section supervisor Hank Walther said in court on March 22 that he expects several defendants to plead guilty in the coming weeks. One defendant has already agreed to do so.
"The critical importance is getting the joint defense into a coherent, congenial, cooperative group that doesn't turn into what we call a circular firing squad," said Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe litigation partner Michael Madigan, who represents J. Gregory Godsey, an Atlanta-based insurance defense attorney who was charged in the case. "While this is not remotely a single conspiracy, there are some legal issues that affect all defendants."
Timed with the arrests of the executives during a trade show in Las Vegas in January, more than 150 FBI agents executed search warrants in 14 cities, including Miami and San Francisco. Prosecutors say they have amassed thousands of hours of video and audio surveillance, and the evidence includes purchase agreements and e-mails.
The defendants, according to prosecutors, offered bribes to a fake defense minister through an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a sales representative. In the ruse, the foreign official sought equipment to outfit the presidential guard of Gabon. The defendants agreed to pay a 20 percent commission -- kickback money -- to get a piece of a $15 million contract, according to charging documents. The money laundering charge carries the heftiest penalty, a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The prosecution has attracted considerable attention in the white-collar criminal defense bar largely for the length of the investigation and the novelty of the underlying law enforcement tactic: the undercover sting. But defense lawyers in the case questioned the use of government resources to concoct crimes, and they said entrapment could be argued at trial.
"Should the government be creating crimes and luring people in?" said David Schertler, a name partner at Washington's Schertler & Onorato who represents defendant Lee Wares, a United Kingdom executive in the armored vehicle business. "Isn't there enough ongoing crime they could be investigating?"
The defense attorneys have met several times at law firms in Washington, including one meeting at DLA Piper, to discuss legal issues. Many said last week they were still unsure about strategy because the government has not announced how it plans to try the case -- whether, for instance, it will ask to group certain defendants together or to pursue individual cases based on alleged transactions.
For now, much of the battle has focused on how soon the case should go to trial.
Schertler and DLA Piper partner Peter Zeidenberg said in a March 19 joint filing opposing the government's effort to stop the speedy trial clock from running: "In its zeal to publicly tout the success of its two-year undercover investigation, the government seems to have forgotten that it actually has to try these cases."
In court last week, Steptoe & Johnson partner Brian Heberlig and others told Judge Richard Leon that they could be for trial ready by this summer. Heberlig said his client, Offer Paz, who lives in Israel and provides consulting services to defense industry suppliers, should not have to sit around for a year while "the government gets its act together."
One defense attorney in the case, Dickinson Wright partner Michael Volkov, hasn't been participating in the group defense meetings since his client, Daniel Alvirez, intends to plead guilty. "I think as time goes on," Volkov said, "you're going to see more and more people pleading guilty and cooperating because the stakes are too high."