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Michael Abbell, the D.C. lawyer who once led the Justice Department’s efforts to chase down drug barons abroad, has officially become one of the bad guys. A Harvard Law School graduate who put his extradition expertise to work for the bosses of the Cali Cartel, the 57-year-old Abbell was found guilty last week in Miami of funneling hush money to imprisoned cartel members and writing false affidavits for his Colombian clients.
Abbell was convicted on two counts, racketeering conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. The five-man, six-woman jury hung on two other charges: conspiracy to import cocaine and conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute it, both of which carry maximum sentences of life without parole. He’s still looking at some serious time: Each of his convictions carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, although under federal sentencing guidelines the terms for the two offenses would likely be served concurrently.
Sentencing has been set for Oct. 16th. Henry Asbill, of the D.C. firm Asbill, Junkin and Moffitt, who represents Abbell with his partner William Moffitt, says he’s expecting a term of around 10 years. Asbill suggests that Abbell wasn’t the only one hurt by the verdict.
“This case represented a massive assault on the criminal defense function, the criminal defense bar, and the integrity of the jury system,” says Asbill. “If I weren’t so angry I’d be clinically depressed.”
Abbell, who among other things headed Justice’s Office of International Affairs during a 17-year career at the department that ended in 1984, is free on bond at his home in a tony neighborhood near the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. His co-defendant, William Moran, a high-profile Miami defense lawyer, is also free, although there’s a warrant out for his arrest. Moran disappeared from the federal courthouse in Miami on July 17, when he got word that the jury had reached a verdict. The Tampa Tribune reported that Moran was last seen “going down an elevator and out of the courthouse shortly after the jury wrote a note saying it had decided one of four counts.”
“People are just bewildered,” says Jack King, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). “People don’t know what he did. He could have disappeared or could have committed suicide.”
The trial was the second for Abbell on charges stemming from a 161-page indictment handed down by the U.S. Attorney in Miami in 1995 (see Washington City Paper, “Cocaine and Abbell,” 11/3/95). Last fall, in the first trial, Abbell was acquitted on a major charge: racketeering (which is different from last week’s conviction, conspiring to racketeer). Back then, the jury deadlocked on the four other charges (see “Justice Denied,” 10/31/97). Prosecutors retried Abbell and, this time, drew blood.
Prosecutors convinced a jury that in his representation Abbell had crossed an unholy line, going from representing his Cali clients to being one of them, part of an international criminal syndicate that had smuggled more than 200 tons of cocaine into the United States in the preceding decade. Four other lawyers named in the indictment pleaded guilty to charges from cocaine importation to money laundering. But Abbell and Moran decided to roll the dice. This time around, the dice came up snake eyes.
Howard Srebnick, of the Miami firm Black, Srebnick & Kornspan, who represented Abbell in the first trial, says that the game’s not over yet. Srebnick and his brother, Scott, will be representing Abbell on appeal, on grounds of jury intimidation. Srebnick alleges that two male jurors told holdouts on the jury that, if the holdouts didn’t give in, they would call journalists with their names. Meanwhile, Srebnick complains, U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler dismissed a female juror who was holding out for acquittal, as the jury neared the end of an emotional 10 days of deliberation.
“The message that the judge sent to that jury was that those jurors that were in the minority should give up their position,” Srebnick says. “Our position is, it’s a juror’s prerogative not to agree.”
Ed Ryan, one of the assistant U.S. Attorneys who prosecuted the case, says that the judge simply dismissed the juror because he said he had found her unwilling to deliberate in good faith and follow his instructions.
Fresh from its victory, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami issued a press release saying, “The case should send a strong message to the cartel that ultimately there will be a day of reckoning.”
This week the court takes up another matter, forfeiture. The government wants any cash Abbell collected for unlawful work on behalf of the Cali bosses. Asbill estimates that Abbell’s fees to the cartel totalled $600,000 between 1991 and 1995. Regardless of how much of this amount the government goes after, Miami U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott says that Abell faces separate criminal fines of up to $4 million.
But Srebnick says that no matter what cash the feds demand, they’re not going to find any pot of gold: Abbell’s legal bills from the two trials “were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
He adds that Abbell’s wife and three sons are “very disappointed” in the verdict. “They believe in his innocence….” Abbell did not return a call.
In the wake of the verdict, criminal defense bar members are wondering whether they have a new occupational hazard to worry about, according to King of the NACDL.
Not only has the government convicted a lawyer on major criminal charges that typically would have been classified as more minor crimes, like obstruction of justice or subornation of perjury, it has successfully shown criminal lawyers across the country that working for certain clients can itself be a crime.
“It means that the government can use typical lawyer activities such as preparing affidavits or visiting someone in prison as evidence of a conspiracy with the lawyer’s client,” says King. “That’s what chills the defense bar.”
John Russell, a Justice Department spokesman, says that that’s hogwash, that the department didn’t go after Abbell for representing criminals but prosecuted him because it believed he had become one. “The question is whether the defendant broke the law. We contend that he did….And ultimately we were successful.” CP