Attorney Stanley L. Cohen exits the U.S. District Court in Syracuse on Monday after pleading guilty to obstructing the IRS. (Dave Tobin/Syracuse Post-Standard)
Self-styled radical defense lawyer Stanley L. Cohen will lose his law license and spend time in prison after pleading guilty Monday to charges he violated federal tax law by operating a cash law business.
Appearing in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District in Syracuse, Cohen pleaded to the felony of corruptly obstructing and impeding the Internal Revenue Service for failing to file taxes stretching back to 2004 and failing to report $35,000 in cash payments he received in 2008 and 2010.
Cohen, 63, used his law firm website to decry the charges as part of a government “witch hunt” to punish him for his radical views and clients.
“I plead to being an enemy of the fascist state,” Cohen told The Associated Press on Monday after leaving court. “This, I believe, has been a massive witch hunt for more than a decade. And I believe, as much as anything, it was designed to buy up my time … and get my license … and to silence me.”
Cohen, fresh off the conviction of his client, Osama bin Laden son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, for providing material support to al Qaida as a spokesman before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, faces upwards of 18 months in prison when he is sentenced August 21 by Judge Norman Mordue (See Profile).
Cohen entered the guilty plea pursuant to a plea agreement with the Northern District U.S. Attorney’s Office. Under the agreement, he will also have to plead guilty to separate charges in the Southern District within 10 days.
In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Cohen said “what’s clear is that what happened in court today, notwithstanding a plea, is not income tax evasion.”
“Those returns were filed, payments were made but there have been arguments over money for years,” he said.
Cohen was pleased, he said, that the government conceded some of the overt acts he was charged with were “perfectly legal” and that “the judge denied their application to limit my ability to travel anywhere in the world,” which he called “a significant victory.”
U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian said in a release that Cohen’s law offices on Avenue D in Manhattan and at his home in Jeffersonville, New York were searched during a probe in which “investigators found that essentially he kept no financial records regarding income or payment of fees from clients.”
From 2004 to 2010, the prosecutor said, Cohen had deposits totaling in excess of $3.6 million in his financial accounts, and he “would cause wire transfers of cash to his accounts to be made by his clients, many of whom were residents of the Akwesasne Reservation.” The wire transfers, some $643,000, were made by MoneyGram from the Speedway Convenience Store near the near the reservation.
“Stanley Cohen sought to avoid his tax obligations by consistently failing to file his federal and state tax returns over a six-year period and by operating his law practice in a manner that corruptly hid millions of dollars in legal fees from the Internal Revenue Service,” Hartunian said. “No citizen, especially an attorney, is above the law.”
Cohen posted on his website Sunday a denunciation of the government, saying its investigation into his taxes began 10 years ago when prosecutors unsuccessfully tried to charge him with providing material support for Hamas.
Cohen said his criminal defense work has included representing people charged with terrorism—about 30 cases in the U.S. and 15 overseas.
He also has filed lawsuits against Israel for what he calls “the theft of Palestine” and says he probably has won more lawsuits against federal seizures than any other defense lawyer in northern New York. “There are a lot of federal agents that don’t like me,” he told Associated Press.
Asked about the tax case, Cohen said he didn’t file tax returns for five years but has filed extensions and made payments, kept cash in his safe and worked for clients on a barter basis. The government is accurately claiming that $3 million passed through his accounts but forgot to mention the $2.6 million in expenses, he said.
He claims that defending himself against the tax charges has cost himself, his family and friends $600,000 and “hurt my ‘non-political’ practice by scaring off clients.”
“After painful discussions with my family, friends, supporters and colleagues at home and abroad I have elected to end this particular witch hunt and harassment,” he said on the website.
He lamented the impending loss of his law license after 31 years of practice and said he is looking forward to applying for reinstatement when he is released from prison, vowing “Make no mistake about it, this plea will not change my commitment to truth, justice and resistance.”
Cohen bills himself as an “attorney and activist for a global neighborhood” and says he won’t take a client unless he agrees with their politics.
A VISTA volunteer out of college, he ran a drug program for teens in Westchester and worked as an administrator for a federally-funded anti-poverty agency before graduating from Pace Law School in 1984.
He began his legal career in the criminal defense division of the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx and moved into private practice doing criminal defense and representing dozens of unpopular clients, including the successful effort from 1995 to 1997 to beat back extradition from the United States to Israel of Mousa Abu Marzook, the leader of the political wing of Hamas.
He assisted in the defense in the notorious Larry Davis case, in which Davis was acquitted of shooting six police officers during an apartment raid in the Bronx but convicted of another murder in 1991.
He represented the Mohawk Warrior Society during an 1990 armed confrontation with Quebec police and military at the Mohawk Territory in Akwasasne territory that straddles the New York/Canada border. Cohen himself was charged with seditious conspiracy by Canada in a case that was later dismissed.
In his most recent high-profile case, Cohen had an uphill struggle defending Abu Ghayth at trial before Judge Lewis Kaplan (See Profile).
He argued that fiery speeches the cleric delivered after Sept. 11 vowing that “storm of airplanes” would continue—and the photo of his client outside a cave in Afghanistan with bin Laden and other wanted terrorists—were part of a prosecution that was based on no more than “words and associations.”
The jury didn’t buy it. It took just six hours to convict Abu Ghayth, leaving Cohen to vow that he had several strong avenues of appeal (NYLJ, March 27).
The tax case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stephen Green and John Duncan. Cohen was represented by Donald Kinsella.