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Everyone in Washington knows that Michele Roberts, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and the former chief of the D.C. Public Defenders Service’s trial division, is a formidable opponent in the courtroom. So perhaps it comes as little surprise that the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office is trying to get Roberts off the defense team representing Douglas Jemal, a local developer accused of bribing city officials for contracts. In an Aug. 1 filing, the government alleges that Roberts has a conflict of interest in her representation because Akin Gump once represented a likely government witness in Jemal’s upcoming trial, Fernando Villegas, a local businessman who pleaded guilty in November 2004 to one count of conspiracy in connection with the same government official to whom Jemal is accused of giving gifts. Though prosecutors do not allege that Roberts had access to client confidences with Villegas, the government claims Villegas was not fully informed of the potential conflict when he provided a waiver to the firm. “There is a legitimate question of whether Akin Gump has an unwaiveable conflict” if Roberts cross-examines Villegas, prosecutors wrote in their brief. Roberts begs to differ. In a response she argues that the firm went through the proper conflict evaluation and received all necessary waivers. Contrary to the government’s contention, she says her colleagues Mark MacDougall and Anthony Swisher did not represent Villegas during his testimony at a D.C. Council oversight hearing in June 2003. Their representation began the following month and ended before Villegas entered his guilty plea. What’s more, Roberts contends that nothing in Villegas’ plea indicates he would provide testimony against Jemal. She says the firm has represented Jemal since 2003 and never heard a word from the prosecution about her involvement until this summer. “If they had a concern about it, they should have raised it right after Villegas’ plea,” Roberts says in an interview. “I find it suspicious that this is finally being raised one month before trial.” (The government says in its brief it was “under the impression” that Roberts would not be participating as trial counsel.) Judge Ricardo Urbina has a hearing scheduled for Aug. 8.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected]

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