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It was in 2006 that Columbus, Ga., attorney J. Mark Shelnutt first heard from clients that an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Columbus had told them if they needed a lawyer, they better look somewhere else. The reason they were being steered away, Shelnutt said his clients told him, was because he had become the subject of a criminal investigation by federal law enforcement agents. In 2006, the veteran criminal defense attorney was defending the accused ringleader of a drug trafficking enterprise who had been arrested the previous year after the largest drug seizure in Columbus’ history. On May 4, 2005, federal and local drug agents had seized 220 kilos of cocaine, more than a ton of marijuana and $600,000 in cash and broken up what a federal judge described as “one of the largest drug conspiracies in the city’s history.” Shelnutt confronted Columbus DEA agent Stephen T. Ribolla, who he had been told was the source of the investigation rumors. Ribolla denied it. But in a federal hearing last summer, Ribolla acknowledged he had initiated the investigation of Shelnutt although he claimed he was not the source of the alleged leaks. Ribolla is no longer with the DEA in Columbus. Spokesmen for the Department of Justice in Washington and for the DEA in Atlanta, which supervises the Columbus DEA office, would not say where Ribolla has been posted. The DEA in Atlanta would not respond to requests for an interview or written questions about Ribolla’s role in the Shelnutt investigation. For the next three years, Shelnutt said he endured a whisper campaign identifying him as a player in the drug ring whose members he and his law partners were defending. The rumors broke up his law practice, ruined his reputation and cost him more than $200,000 to defend himself against federal charges that could have sent him to prison for nearly 25 years. Last May, a federal grand jury handed down a 40-count indictment charging Shelnutt with conspiring to launder money, 31 counts of money laundering, aiding and abetting a drug conspiracy, lying to federal agents, intimidating a grand jury witness, failing to report cash transactions over $10,000 and the attempted bribery of a federal prosecutor. The money-laundering and drug conspiracy charges were based on Shelnutt’s acceptance of legal fees that prosecutors claimed were derived from the illegal drug sales of Shelnutt’s clients. Accepting defense fees that may have come from drug sales is not a federal crime. Last October, just two weeks before Shelnutt’s trial opened, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the legality of the practice, which first was established by federal statute in 1986. But federal prosecutors elected to go forward with Shelnutt’s trial anyway, claiming Shelnutt had concealed cash fees that drug dealer witnesses claimed they had paid him. A jury in U.S. District Court in Columbus acquitted Shelnutt of all charges last November after Judge Clay D. Land, who presided over the trial, instructed the jury that it is not a federal crime to accept legal fees that come from drug money and, “The fact that Mr. Shelnutt may have concealed a legitimate attorney fee is not a federal crime.” In a series of interviews with the Fulton County Daily Report beginning the day after his acquittal, Shelnutt told his story of the three-year investigation. He said he remains baffled by the tactics federal prosecutors employed in an effort to send him to prison. Foremost among them, he said, was their willingness to offer key players in the drug-trafficking ring sweetheart plea deals or set them free if they would testify against him. “They basically partnered with a drug-trafficking organization to take down an attorney,” he said. Shelnutt acknowledged that his habit of taking thousands of dollars in cash payments from clients, stashing those retainer fees in a desk drawer, his willingness to make large cash loans to friends and employees (he once reached into his desk drawer and pulled out $15,000 in cash to give to a secretary who needed money for her daughter’s wedding), and his own preference for keeping large sums of cash in a home safe helped to fuel federal agents’ suspicions. Still, he said he believes he became a federal target because of his zealous defense of Columbus’ biggest drug trafficker. Prosecutors and federal agents “lost their moral compass” and engaged in a vendetta that was intended to ruin him, Shelnutt said. “In this particular case, the agents and prosecutors weren’t interested in the truth.” His experience, Shelnutt reflected, “should sound a warning to every defense attorney.” Following his acquittal, Shelnutt sued the federal government for more than $225,000 in legal fees that he incurred over the course of the three-year investigation and his eventual trial, claiming that the investigation was intended to harass him, was conducted in bad faith, “lacked any legal or factual basis” and persisted despite “clear, unequivocal evidence” that exonerated him of any wrongdoing. Federal prosecutors have responded in pleadings that five witnesses, all drug dealers who faced lengthy prison sentences, have sworn that they delivered $250,000 in cash from drug sales to Shelnutt — testimony which failed to convince the jury and which Shelnutt has denied. In return for their testimony against Shelnutt, the government dismissed charges against three of those defendants and substantially reduced the requested sentence of a fourth. Prosecutors promised the fifth witness — Shelnutt’s client, drug ringleader Torrance “Bookie” Hill — that they would drop charges against his girlfriend, which they subsequently did, in return for his testimony against Shelnutt. “Viewed as a whole, the position of the United States — that defendant laundered drug money and attempted to conceal those actions — was taken in good faith, rested on probable cause and had merit,” prosecutors argued in a pleading now pending before Land. Last month, Land, who presided over Shelnutt’s trial and will rule on his request for legal fees from the government, slammed federal prosecutors for their “relentless pursuit” of the defense attorney. Land said he was “concerned that the focus of the U.S. Attorney’s Office was on getting a high-profile lawyer and negotiating sweetheart plea deals with the actual drug dealers to accomplish that.” Former U.S. Attorney F. Maxwell Wood, whose office in Georgia’s Middle District in Macon initiated the Shelnutt investigation and who is now running as a Republican candidate for state attorney general, scoffed at any suggestion of a vendetta. “I never considered anything to be a vendetta,” he said. “I stand behind the prosecution.” The jury, he added, just “didn’t find evidence to prove he [Shelnutt] was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” During the Shelnutt investigation, Wood’s office recused after deciding Shelnutt had attempted to bribe an Assistant U.S. Attorney by offering to sell him a pair of the law firm’s University of Georgia football tickets at face value. Wood then turned the investigation over to federal prosecutors in Georgia’s Southern District in Savannah. Prosecutors working for Wood continued to negotiate plea agreements with accused drug dealers who were part of Torrance Hill’s drug ring in return for their testimony against Shelnutt. Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph D. Newman, who served as acting U.S. Attorney in Georgia’s Southern District while his office prosecuted Shelnutt, told the Fulton County Daily Report, “I feel no need to defend this office or the Department of Justice” in bringing Shelnutt to trial. Gregory Jones, special agent in charge of the FBI in Atlanta, which oversees the Columbus office that participated in the Shelnutt investigation, declined to answer written questions about the investigation or the conduct of FBI agents in Columbus and their interviews with Shelnutt. “The FBI, in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies, conducted a thorough investigation into this case and, although its outcome was not anticipated, we respect the jury’s verdict,” Jones said. Shelnutt said that federal prosecutors also placed his life in jeopardy when they initiated a ruse that convinced Hill, who was cooperating with federal authorities in a plea deal Shelnutt had arranged, that Shelnutt had orchestrated his 2005 arrest and the subsequent roundup of his associates that ultimately broke apart his drug trade. After receiving credible evidence that the tactic had prompted Hill to issue a death threat against Shelnutt and an Assistant U.S. Attorney, federal prosecutors notified Shelnutt’s attorney but balked at giving him details of the threat and refused to provide any protection for him or his family (although they asked U.S. marshals to protect the prosecutor). Eventually, they dismissed the reported threat as unfounded on the recommendation of an FBI agent who was investigating Shelnutt and relying on Hill to help him make the case against the lawyer. Atlanta attorney Craig A. Gillen, who with partner Thomas A. Withers in Savannah successfully defended Shelnutt, called Shelnutt’s case “a nightmare, not only for him but for all lawyers, particularly criminal defense attorneys.” “We are vulnerable if former clients make false allegations against a lawyer without corroboration, and those allegations are believed by the government,” Gillen said. “Some may say that, ultimately, the system worked because in a court of law with a judge and jury, Mark was acquitted of all charges. However, the system failed in certain respects. The fallout from this case and the price the government paid for its witness testimony is dramatic. People who were involved in selling hundreds of kilos of cocaine in South Georgia, some of those folks are scot-free and back in the community. And that’s a heavy price for the community to pay as well.” Shelnutt, 46, grew up the son of a Methodist minister. Born in Gainesville, Ga., his family lived in Rome, Ga., Griffin, Ga., and Atlanta, where he graduated from Druid Hills High School. He then earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Emory University. Shelnutt began his legal career as a prosecutor, first in Albany, Ga., and later in Columbus, where he was hired by the circuit’s district attorney, Douglas Pullen, who is now a Chattahoochee Circuit Superior Court judge. Shelnutt spent five years as a prosecutor and four years as a judge in Recorders Court before opening his own firm in 1994 with partner Edward F. Berry. The general law practice handled both civil and criminal matters, eventually expanding in 2004 to become Berry Shelnutt Day & Hoffman. Current Chattahoochee Circuit District Attorney Julia A. Fessenden Slater was an associate at the firm before, with Shelnutt’s support, she beat District Attorney J. Gray Conger in a hotly contested election in 2008. Shelnutt said that for years he maintained close ties with the county prosecutors who were his former colleagues, often socializing with them and with local law enforcement officers, who came to him whenever they needed a lawyer. He also was politically active, contributing time and money to local campaigns, harboring aspirations to win a seat on the circuit’s Superior Court. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, Shelnutt won recognition as a favorite lawyer in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer‘s annual Readers’ Choice Awards. And for more than a decade, Shelnutt also zealously represented Torrance Hill as Hill rose in the criminal ranks from a street-level dealer of crack cocaine to Columbus’ biggest drug trafficker, earning what Hill would later testify was $9 million a month from the illegal drugs that his growing network of dealers sold and that Shelnutt said was secured from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and his notorious Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. The May 2005 drug bust and a second one in February 2006 would form the basis of charges against Hill and his associates in federal court and Superior Court. Defending Hill would consume Shelnutt for the next four years. It also would attract the attention — and ire — of federal drug agents, Ribolla in particular, who viewed as criminal Shelnutt’s receipt of legal fees from Hill and other members of his drug ring. Over the decade that he represented Hill, Shelnutt also defended Hill’s relatives and friends and handled the occasional civil matter for them (including an accident settlement for Hill and his wife, Tamika Hill). Shelnutt believes it was his aggressive defense of Hill, Hill’s relatives and associates after their arrests in May 2005 that placed him in the crosshairs of the federal and local drug agents who had arrested Hill and shut down his drug network. “What happened is the system turned against him because he was an effective adversary,” said Shelnutt attorney Tom Withers, a partner of Atlanta’s Gillen Withers & Lake in Savannah. Once Shelnutt fell under the microscope of federal agents, the informal and perhaps too casual way in which he and his partners handled the cash fees generated by their law practice only fed their suspicions. “At times, we didn’t run all the cash through the business,” Shelnutt explained. Instead, in a practice that stemmed from the early days of the firm, Shelnutt and his partners had a longtime habit of taking the initial cash retainer fees from defendants or civil litigants, placing them into a pot and, on Fridays, divvying them up. Shelnutt said his partner, Ed Berry, referred to the cash distributions as “walking-around money.” “We were putting 99.98 percent through on the books,” Shelnutt explained, adding that, “Every month we got a printout of how much each partner made,” including the weekly ad-hoc cash distributions. It was left to each partner to report the earnings on their personal income taxes, he said. Shelnutt’s habit of stashing cash was not limited to his office. For years, he and his former wife kept thousands of dollars in cash in a home safe and stored in bank safety deposit boxes. Shelnutt said he picked up the habit from his own parents, who were children of the Great Depression and never completely trusted banks. Shelnutt said it was not unusual for him to take checks, even large ones, to the bank, convert them to cash, bring the money home and either secure it in a safe or deposit it in his wife’s bank account, from which the couple paid all their monthly bills. He was also a soft touch when it came to loans to friends and colleagues, pulling wads of cash from his pocket or his desk drawer when they needed help in making a car payment, when their children got into trouble or when a daughter got married. Shelnutt said he had been defending Hill for more than a year on state charges in Muscogee County and was negotiating a plea deal with federal prosecutors on parallel federal charges — stemming from the May 2005 drug bust — when he first heard that he, along with his client, was the subject of a DEA investigation. At a federal arraignment in another case, Shelnutt said he confronted DEA agent Ribolla. “I said something to the effect that I didn’t appreciate him telling people they couldn’t hire me,” Shelnutt recalled. He asked Ribolla if he were being investigated. Ribolla denied it. But Shelnutt said the drug agent also told him, “You’re unethical.” “I said, ‘Well, you can’t tell people who they can hire and who they can’t hire,’” Shelnutt recalled. “He said, ‘Well, I can give my opinion. I’m entitled to give my opinion to anybody.’” In a pretrial hearing last July, Ribolla said he launched the investigation of Shelnutt in 2006 but denied having leaked word of it to any of Shelnutt’s potential clients. During his testimony, the DEA agent acknowledged that, as part of his investigation, he had arranged to use Torrance Hill’s wife, Tamika, to secretly record Shelnutt, in order to bolster her claims that she had collected drug money to pay Shelnutt’s legal fees. Ribolla also confirmed that he had recruited Columbus attorney Mark A. Casto — whom Shelnutt had recommended to defend one of Hill’s drug lieutenants — to secretly record phone calls with Shelnutt, had provided a federal prosecutor with a recording device to secretly tape a conversation with Shelnutt in 2008, and had met with Torrance Hill in what became a successful effort to turn him against Shelnutt. During his testimony, Ribolla recalled that he had once told Shelnutt, “Some of the things you are doing are unethical.” “His multiple representations [of clients],” Ribolla said, “I thought there was a lot of conflict there.” In October 2006, Chattahoochee DA Gray Conger secured a grand jury indictment in neighboring Harris County against Hill, his wife, his girlfriend and eight other suspected members of the drug ring. Those state charges largely duplicated the federal charges to which Hill had pleaded guilty. The Harris County indictments led Hill’s wife, Tamika — whom Shelnutt had successfully defended in 2006 against drug charges in Muscogee County — to cooperate with Ribolla’s investigation. When the Harris County grand jury indicted Tamika Hill, Shelnutt was representing her husband in federal court and defending one of Hill’s cousins, Choici Lawrence. Members of his firm were defending Latea Davis, Hill’s girlfriend and the mother of his baby, and Lawrence’s husband — all of them suspected members of Hill’s drug network who were named, along with Tamika Hill, in the Harris County indictments. During one pretrial hearing, the Harris County judge presiding over the case schooled — and secured waivers from — the defendants regarding potential conflicts of interest by those attorneys, including Shelnutt, who were defending more than one client and who had launched a coordinated defense, according to evidence introduced at Shelnutt’s trial. Because he was already representing co-defendants, Shelnutt referred Tamika to another lawyer. When a Harris County judge denied her bond, she replaced the attorney Shelnutt had recommended with Atlanta lawyer Derek M. Wright. A short time later, Shelnutt said he learned that local prosecutors had allowed Tamika to post bail. That month, “People were telling me, folks I know, ‘She’s turned. She’s cooperating,’” Shelnutt recalled. “No one ever said they thought she was turning on me.” Three months later, in January 2007, Tamika Hill met with Shelnutt four times to plead with him to represent her. What Shelnutt didn’t know at the time was that every meeting had been orchestrated by the DEA. Wired with a hidden video camera, Tamika Hill secretly recorded the meetings, in which she told Shelnutt, “I want you to be in charge. I have faith in you. … I want you to look out for me.” Tamika Hill testified at Shelnutt’s trial that her statements during her meetings with Shelnutt were “role-playing.” That summer, unaware that federal agents had secretly recorded his conversations with Tamika Hill, Shelnutt said he stumbled on another troubling indicator that federal agents had him in their sights. Shelnutt was at the FBI’s Columbus office to meet with a client, a Columbus police officer whom federal agents had arrested on drug charges. In the interview room where he met with his client, Shelnutt said there was a board with his client’s name and a list of people to whom the officer had placed calls. Shelnutt’s name was one of them. Shelnutt said that underneath his name, someone had written, “attorney for the Black Mafia.” “That really did disturb me,” Shelnutt recalled. “I’ve never had that name come up in connection with any case I ever had.” Founded in the 1980s in Detroit, the Black Mafia Family was a violent, national drug-trafficking gang with operations in 11 states. Federal authorities have never identified Torrance Hill as a member. Concerned, the lawyer raised the issue with the FBI agent in charge of the Columbus office, Randy Allen. Allen dismissed Shelnutt’s concerns, telling him, “There was nothing to it,” and adding, “don’t worry about it. In your business, people are going to talk,” Shelnutt recalled. Shelnutt said he believed him. “This was someone I had known for 16 years. … He had gone to the same church with me.” Two weeks later, Allen asked Shelnutt to meet him at the FBI’s office. When Shelnutt arrived, Allen read him a Miranda warning and then accused the lawyer of attempting to bribe a witness in a two-year-old, closed case unrelated to the Hill drug cases. “It just floored me,” Shelnutt recalled. “I had no clue where that was coming from, why they were saying that or who was saying that.” Allen accused him of having offered to pay cash to the witness to drop the case against Shelnutt’s client. But Shelnutt said he had taped conversations with the woman that proved the allegations were false. No federal charges resulted from that FBI inquiry. A day later, Shelnutt and his law partners confronted Assistant U.S. Attorney Melvin E. Hyde Jr. at the firm offices about what now appeared to be a full-blown investigation of Shelnutt. Hyde, he said, promised “to call off the dogs.” Said Shelnutt: “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, you don’t call off the dogs unless there are dogs to call off.’” In a federal hearing last summer, Hyde confirmed that he had met with Shelnutt and his partners. “I did not promise anything,” the federal prosecutor testified. But he said that in a letter he sent to his supervisors at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Macon, “I told my bosses that, in my opinion, unless they had something more solid on Mr. Shelnutt, they should back off.” On July 13, 2007, Shelnutt wrote a letter to then-U.S. Attorney Max Wood, complaining about the FBI’s groundless accusation. “Clearly, under color of law, law enforcement agents in this community are pursuing a personal persecution of me,” the letter said. “Let me be perfectly clear that an attack on me has been an attack on our entire firm and we are requesting full disclosure of all sources behind the generation of this investigation and expect appropriate consequences to be taken.” Wood agreed to a meeting. Shelnutt, accompanied by Macon attorney David A. Smith, said that at that meeting he also presented Wood with evidence (including eight affidavits) backing up his suspicion that the Metro Narcotics Task Force (which consisted of local and federal law enforcement agents) might be fabricating information that provided the basis for narcotics search warrants. Shelnutt said he suspected that his queries about those warrants might have prompted federal agents to retaliate. It was, Shelnutt recalled, “like talking to a brick wall.” In a follow-up letter to Wood after the meeting, Shelnutt offered “to sit down with federal agents” to discuss the questionable search warrants, adding that, “The practices I brought to your attention are continuing at present and need to be addressed in order to keep such abuses from taking place in the future.” Wood never responded, Shelnutt said. Said Smith, “I was very, very disappointed in the way Max handled the situation. … He didn’t respond to anything Mark asked.” In that meeting, Smith said that Shelnutt also expressed concern about whether he could continue to represent drug clients in the ongoing federal investigation if he, himself, were a target of the same probe. “Max said there was no conflict. He can do whatever he wants to,” Smith recalled. Asked about his 2007 meeting with Shelnutt and Smith and the concerns Shelnutt had raised, Wood told the Fulton County Daily Report, “I’m not going to relay what happened in the meeting,” adding, “I don’t remember details of that meeting.” But he challenged both Shelnutt’s and Smith’s version, claiming that nothing Shelnutt said should be considered credible. That September, Shelnutt and 11 other lawyers signed a letter to Chattahoochee DA Gray Conger outlining the same suspicions Shelnutt had shared with Wood that members of the Metro Drug Task Force were fabricating search warrants in order to make drug raids. The letter offered to provide the district attorney with evidence of false testimony given in hearings by the metro narcotics task force officer whose name appeared on all the warrants. Shelnutt said he has never learned whether any investigation followed the complaint. “I never heard anything back from Gray,” he said. Meanwhile, rumors that Shelnutt was under investigation were continuing to percolate through Columbus’ legal community. In January 2008, Shelnutt received word that the Superior Court judge against whom he had intended to run in 2008 “began telling people I was going to be indicted in March” on money-laundering charges, Shelnutt recalled. “It scared me.” Again, Shelnutt called Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Hyde to ask him whether he was under investigation. Hyde once again reassured him that he was not, according to Shelnutt. At a hearing last summer, Hyde testified that by that time, “I had completely divorced myself from that case. … If I misrepresented anything, it was because I didn’t know what was going on. As far as I knew, he wasn’t going to be indicted.” It was in a Harris County hearing in February 2008 where Shelnutt received another shock, courtesy of Tamika Hill’s lawyer, Derek Wright. Wright identified Tamika Hill as a cooperating government witness and announced that if she went to trial, her defense would be that Shelnutt had directed her to collect money from drug dealers who owed her husband money in order to pay Shelnutt’s legal fees. Shelnutt said that Wright’s assertions in open court left him in “a state of shock.” Ten days later, Torrance Hill’s lieutenant and right-hand man, Shawn “Biscuit” Bunkley, and his defense attorney, Mark Casto, met with Ribolla and FBI agent Todd Kalish to cut a similar deal. Like Tamika Hill, Bunkley told the agents that he had collected money from drug dealers who owed Hill and given it to Shelnutt to pay Hill’s legal fees. Bunkley claimed that once he had given Shelnutt a box containing $125,000 in cash in the parking lot of a grocery store. The money, he said, had come from the sale of one of Hill’s race cars. When federal agents learned later that Bunkley’s testimony was at odds with bank records he had said would back up his claim, he was allowed to reappear before the grand jury investigating Shelnutt and change his story. He hadn’t given Shelnutt $125,000, he said. He’d given him $90,000. The money didn’t come from the sale of a race car, he said. It was drug money. Shelnutt recalls that Bunkley gave him money only once — a $5,000 retainer that he forwarded to attorney Mark Casto. Shelnutt later would learn that Casto was secretly recording him for the government. Casto testified at Shelnutt’s trial and at a pretrial hearing last July that after Bunkley agreed to cooperate, federal agents began interviewing him, demanding to know why he had co-signed a letter written by Shelnutt accusing the narcotics task force of fabricating search warrants. Casto testified that he told them he signed the letter only because Shelnutt intended to run for a seat on the Superior Court bench and that he didn’t want to get on the bad side of a possible future judge. By the time the agents had finished interviewing Casto, he had agreed to record his telephone conversations with Shelnutt. During one of those recorded calls, Casto refused to discuss Bunkley’s plea deal with Shelnutt, although the two lawyers represented co-defendants and had been sharing information about the case. Worried that Bunkley might be taking his cues from Tamika Hill in order to stay out of prison, Shelnutt called Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason M. Ferguson to talk. “I believed all I needed was to sit down and explain that I hadn’t done anything,” Shelnutt recalled. “I thought I could meet with them and straighten it out. How naive I was. I believed I could go in and trust those people. In retrospect, I really was an idiot.” It was at that meeting that Ferguson, whose office had recused from the Shelnutt investigation, began secretly taping the conversation and, he acknowledged under oath at a federal hearing last summer, lied to Shelnutt when the lawyer asked him if he were recording it. Shelnutt told the Fulton County Daily Report that he hadn’t expected FBI agent Todd Kalish to be at what he thought would be a private meeting with Ferguson. But he pressed on, despite Kalish’s presence, in a long, rambling conversation that lasted four hours. Throughout, Shelnutt pushed to confirm whether he was a grand jury target, telling the federal prosecutor that he could not continue to represent Choici Lawrence — Torrance Hill’s cousin and an accused member of his drug ring — if he was. But Ferguson wouldn’t be pinned down, continuing to negotiate with Shelnutt about a possible plea for Lawrence even as he sidestepped Shelnutt’s persistent attempts to ascertain whether he, too, was the focus of a grand jury inquiry. Federal prosecutors in the Southern District would later use Shelnutt’s secretly recorded comments as the basis for charges that he had lied to the FBI. That summer of 2008, Ribolla and Kalish began interrogating Shelnutt’s law firm secretaries. They accused one secretary of lying to them and threatened to press federal charges against her, according to testimony at a hearing last summer. Shelnutt said that another secretary was subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury as a witness after federal agents searched her safety deposit box. When she refused to testify, federal prosecutors notified her that she, too, had become a grand jury target. She was never charged, and in December the FBI returned to her the contents of the box that agents had seized, including more than $3,000. Another secretary, however, began secretly providing the government with information about the firm’s bank accounts, escrow accounts and e-mails, Shelnutt said. He said that he and his attorneys learned about it only after federal prosecutors turned over e-mail correspondence prior to Shelnutt’s trial. Shelnutt said he also eventually learned that Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlton R. “Charlie” Bourne of Georgia’s Southern District — who by 2008 had taken control of the Shelnutt investigation from the Middle District — and Ribolla had the preceding spring begun leaning on Torrance Hill, telling him that Shelnutt had orchestrated his arrest and using secretly recorded snippets from Shelnutt’s February 2008 conversation with Assistant U.S. Attorney Ferguson and Kalish to bolster their story. At a pretrial hearing, Ribolla acknowledged playing for Hill a portion of the recorded interview, during which Shelnutt identified one of his clients as the cooperating witness who became the catalyst for Torrance Hill’s arrest. “I just played him the truth,” Ribolla said of the meeting with Hill, “and let him make his own decision.” It was that ruse that allegedly prompted Hill to put out a murder contract on both Shelnutt and Assistant U.S. Attorney Hyde — Shelnutt for setting Hill up for arrest and Hyde for reneging on a condition of Hill’s plea deal that would have allowed the mother of his infant child to go free, Shelnutt said. “Torrance believes to this day that I set him up.” On Nov. 4, 2008, Slater — the law firm associate Shelnutt had encouraged to run for district attorney — beat incumbent Gray Conger. A week later, a federal grand jury subpoenaed her and two of Shelnutt’s law partners. Word of the subpoenas quickly leaked to two Columbus blogs. Both Conger and Slater’s lawyer, Atlanta attorney Page A. Pate, announced that Shelnutt, not Slater, was the target of the grand jury probe. “I had to do that because of the facts of her situation,” Pate told the Fulton County Daily Report. “All these rumors were circulating. Her name was brought up. People wanted to assume she must have been involved. It was important early on to make clear she was not the subject of the investigation.” Federal prosecutors’ inquiry of Slater in the grand jury focused on questions about the law firm’s receipt of fees from clients, Pate said. “That seemed to be the primary focus of the investigation. Where did the money come from? Who paid it? What was the form of payment? That was the general nature of the inquiry.” Shelnutt said that Pate’s announcement, and the negative publicity that followed it, precipitated the breakup of his law firm. “Life was never the same after that headline,” Shelnutt said, referring to a Sunday edition of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. It confirmed his worst fears: “Shelnutt target of federal inquiry.” His longtime partner, Ed Berry, left after his clients indicated they didn’t want to be associated with Shelnutt. Another partner left over a weekend, leaving word that any subsequent communication with him had to go through his lawyer. Slater, now the DA, began hiring away some of Shelnutt’s remaining support staff. That year, Shelnutt and his wife, Chris, separated and were subsequently divorced, although she would take the witness stand for the defense during her ex-husband’s trial. It was then, Shelnutt reflected, that “I started learning who my friends were. A lot of people started treating me as if I had leprosy.” It would take a federal grand jury another six months to hand down charges against Shelnutt. About a month before the indictment was handed down last May, Shelnutt said federal prosecutors approached his attorney and offered to let him plead guilty to a single count of money laundering, which would have cost him his law license and left him facing between three and four years in prison. The indictment, when it was handed down, included 40 charges — 31 counts of laundering money, three counts of failing to file a federal form reporting cash payments over $10,000, three counts of lying to a federal agent, the attempted bribery of a U.S. Attorney and witness tampering stemming from what the indictment claimed was an attempt in July 2008 to intimidate one of his firm’s secretaries by allegedly pressuring her to lie to the grand jury over what he said was a $15,000 loan. Shelnutt said the $15,000 cash loan was one of 25 to 30 short-term loans he had made to secretary Joanne Strickland during the 15 years she had worked for his firm. He said he gave her the money after learning that she feared she did not have enough funds to pay for her daughter’s wedding, pulling the cash from his desk drawer at the office. Strickland repaid all but $500 a short time later with a check. Federal prosecutors eventually dropped the charge, but not before suggesting that the cash-to-check transaction was an attempt by Shelnutt to launder money. In addition to the indictment, federal authorities also sought the forfeiture of Shelnutt’s home and a Florida property in which he was an investor along with other partners at his law firm. Now that he has been acquitted, Shelnutt said, “I’m grateful and happy and excited” but he’s still trying to figure out how to rebuild his law practice and reclaim his life. He said he has learned that “making a paper trail is everything,” including how he handles cash so that “someone can’t just make up” that they paid him what he describes as “monopoly money.” “I’m going to make sure there is a paper trail on every single thing,” he said, “even if I have to get a signature every time payments are made. That’s what left me so vulnerable. People were able to make stuff up off the top of their heads.” As for “walking around money,” Shelnutt said. “There’s not any. It’s not a problem I have to worry about.” But, he added, “That’s a practice I probably won’t be doing.” During a visit to the courthouse shortly after Thanksgiving, Shelnutt said he was greeted by some with handshakes and hugs but by others with little more than a cold stare. “I can tell just by walking through the courthouse, it’s still going to be a while before I feel like everything is back to normal.” “The phones are ringing, and that’s good,” he said. “We’re plodding ahead. We feel confident the new year’s going to be a good one and profitable one.” Shelnutt said that he has not yet appeared as counsel in a federal case. Max Wood resigned last July to run for Georgia attorney general, but career prosecutors Melvin Hyde and Jason Ferguson remain on the U.S. Attorney’s staff. “It’s going to be difficult,” Shelnutt said. “But I’m going to take the next federal case that comes in and work it just like I would work any case. I’ll just deal with the people I have to deal with. … I’m hoping this is all going to make me a better lawyer. I’m going to see things from a whole different perspective and have a whole different view.”

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ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

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