There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Richard Crawford won’t soon forget the crowded Colombian courtroom. It was 1987, and two Cali cartel bosses were standing trial for cocaine trafficking. Crawford, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who was testifying for the prosecution, noticed two Americans conferring with the drug lords’ Colombian attorneys. He was told they were the defendants’ U.S. lawyers. One of them, a short, stocky, strawberry blond man in a sober suit, was introduced to Crawford as Mike Abbell. The name didn’t mean anything to Crawford.
But when Crawford returned to the United States and told colleagues about the lawyer, jaws dropped. Abbell, he was told, had worked at the Justice Department for 17 years. He had even headed Justice’s Office of International Affairs, the unit charged with chasing down foreign drug fugitives.
Of course, this is Washington, and such stark role reversals are commonplace. Hill staffers craft agriculture policy, then take jobs at the Tobacco Institute; retiring members of Congress cash in on their connections with multinational conglomerates; and top federal bureaucrats routinely sign up with the companies they formerly policed. But Mike Abbell, the government says, has done more than simply enjoy the profits of Washington’s revolving door. According to the feds, when Abbell stopped chasing the drug barons, he started helping them run their criminal empires, perverting the very justice system he had pledged to uphold. In June, the U.S. Attorney in Miami unsealed a giant racketeering indictment against Abbell and 58 others allegedly involved in the Cali cocaine cartel.
The 161-page indictment charges Abbell, two other U.S. lawyers, top cartel bosses, and cartel henchmen with racketeering, money laundering, and conspiring to import and distribute 220 tons of cocaine. Abbell, the feds say, prepared fake affidavits and laundered drug money for the bosses. The government maintains that Abbell became a virtual in-house lawyer for the cartel, one of the most ruthless criminal organizations in the world. The cocaine and racketeering charges could send the 55-year-old Abbell, a Harvard College and Harvard Law School graduate, to prison for the rest of his life.
The Miami trial is not expected to begin until summer at the earliest, and may take nine months to conclude. (All the defendants are scheduled to be prosecuted in a single trial, but Abbell is fighting to sever his case from his Cali clients. He probably doesn’t think it will help him to sit at a defense table with drug dealers.) Meanwhile, Abbell awaits his day of reckoning, preparing his defense at his downtown office, traveling to meetings, and spending time with his family in their Bethesda home.
Abbell’s indictment comes at a bad time for the justice system in general, and criminal defenders in particular. In the wake of the O.J. verdict, many Americans (white ones, anyway) are asking if justice is served when defense lawyers stretch the facts, obfuscate issues, and confuse juries—do everything, seemingly, but seek the truth.
And for some in Washington, Abbell has come to epitomize this failing system. He is the star player in a cautionary tale of betrayal and venality. How, ask former colleagues and fellow lawyers, could someone who coaches his sons in Hebrew for their bar mitzvahs jet to Colombia to plot illegally with drug lords? How could a man who dotes on his elderly mother sell his expertise to murderers? And most of all, how could a lawyer who labored almost two decades under the banner of the Justice Department do criminal work for the very drug bosses he had once pursued?
“It’s not just a shock. It’s a fundamental lack of understanding,” says Jonathan Winer, the deputy assistant secretary of state for law enforcement, who as a Senate staffer had dealings with Abbell. “This is something that I can’t believe anybody would do.”
Mike Abbell doesn’t look like a member of “the white-powder bar.” Bespectacled and sturdy at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, he wears sober suits and functional footwear, not diamond tie tacks and Guccis. He is a family man, the father of three boys in their teens and 20s and the husband of an intelligent, solicitous wife. He is known in his sedate Bethesda neighborhood as a good neighbor, a down-home guy who spreads wood chips on his garden every spring and helps his sons with lawn-mowing jobs.
“Some of these things in the Washington Post have made him out to be the right-hand man to the godfather,” says Tevy Schlafman, Abbell’s longtime next-door neighbor. “Which, knowing him, I find impossible to believe. He is a very decent human being.”
And former colleagues from Justice say that Abbell doesn’t fit the stereotype of the slick criminal defender. He may be pompous and egotistical, they say, but he is an academic lawyer far more suited to the classroom than the courtroom; for all his considerable intelligence, Abbell lacks the street smarts for the drug game. Even some who can hardly be called friends say they can’t imagine Abbell doing the things the government says he did. “It flies in the face of everything I knew about him in terms of his character and his reputation,” says former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roger Olsen, who once demoted Abbell.
But there it is: an indictment in which Abbell’s name appears no fewer than 96 times, incorporating more than a decade of evidence gathered by the U.S. Customs Service and DEA. It documents wire transfers, prison visits, phone calls, and faxes. Abbell didn’t merely represent his clients, say the feds, he participated in their international crime syndicate. The indictment shows Abbell going to one kingpin’s Cali home and signing up as in-house counsel; wringing statements falsely declaring his client’s innocence from imprisoned cartel henchmen; laundering at least $600,000 in drug money; bribing one jailed cartel member in order to keep him from cooperating with the government; and filing fake papers in civil suits in an effort to recoup millions in frozen cartel assets.
The government says that Abbell’s activities on behalf of his clients qualify him as a bona fide member of the cartel—an $8-billion smuggling enterprise that supplies 80 percent of the world’s cocaine, according to the DEA. The government has charged Abbell as a co-conspirator with the drug lords, with racketeering and with conspiring to import and distribute cocaine. Each charge carries a potential life sentence. The separate money-laundering charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
“This is not a case of lawyers falling into ethical gray areas,” U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey declared when the indictment was unsealed. “It would be criminal if a truck driver had done these things.”
“It looked like very serious charges. It did not look to me like they were reaching very far to make into a crime what wasn’t a crime,” adds Philip Heymann, former deputy attorney general and Abbell’s boss during the late ’70s.
But Abbell’s colleagues in the criminal-defense bar don’t agree, and his case is shaping up as an explosive battle between federal prosecutors and defense lawyers. Criminal defenders are outraged by the indictment. They call it a wickedly broad assault on them by heavy-handed, resentful Justice Department zealots. They say that the government is scapegoating them for the mere act of representing their clients, blurring the line between defenders’ legitimate duties and their clients’ heinous acts.
“More and more, the government is out to get the messenger. And today [the messenger] is the lawyer who represents the drug cartel,” says former prosecutor Olsen, who now defends white-collar criminals in Los Angeles.
Defense attorneys are appalled by the breadth of the indictment. Normally, prosecutors charge lawyers with obstruction of justice when they do some of the things the indictment alleges, such as trying to buy the silence of government witnesses. Obstruction is a less serious offense; most counts carry five-to-10-year maximum sentences, not the life terms Abbell is facing.
“This indictment is so overboard as to be beyond imagination,” Abbell’s attorney, Roy Black, told the New Yorker early this summer. (Black and other defense attorneys have since been ordered by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler not to discuss the facts of the case with the press, though Black did talk about other issues with me. William Pearson, one of two U.S. attorneys leading the prosecution, also declined comment, as did Abbell himself.)
Abbell is taking a huge gamble by fighting the charges. Four of the other five lawyers named in the indictment have pleaded guilty to lesser offenses, and will opt for jail terms and disbarment rather than risking life sentences. (The indictment only charges three attorneys; the other three entered pleas before the indictment was unsealed.) Of the others, only William Moran has joined Abbell in pleading not guilty. Joel Rosenthal, also a former prosecutor, pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering. So did Robert Moore, who used to work as a public defender. Bogotá native Francisco Laguna, a thirtysomething associate in Abbell’s law firm, pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and one count of conspiracy to import cocaine. And Donald Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to obstruct justice and one count of money laundering after the indictment was unsealed.
“It’s pathetic, because these lawyers felt they had no choice but to plead guilty” or risk being put away for good, says Black. He says the pleas don’t mean the government has a strong case; they merely show that the feds were willing to strong-arm the defendants.
Despite Black’s indignation, Abbell should probably worry—a lot. The government clearly believes it has a strong case. The indictment was vetted repeatedly by Justice officials, and even examined by Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. More important, all four of the lawyers who pleaded guilty are expected to testify against Abbell, including Abbell’s former associate Laguna. Other witnesses will probably include former drug dealers and family members of cartel operatives. The government’s case may also be bolstered by the testimony of top cartel henchman Guillermo Pallomari-Gonzalez. He turned himself in to federal officials in September, promising detailed information on the cartel’s inner workings.
But Abbell is going to trial anyway. He reportedly believes his predicament stems from the bitterness of his former Justice Department colleagues, who resented both his power at the department and his work for Cali kingpins after he left. Given that he faces a possible life sentence, he must also believe the government’s evidence isn’t incontrovertible.
“Mr. Abbell must [have] come to believe that he has an explanation,” says Thomas Cash, who headed the DEA in Miami during the investigation that led to the indictment. “The reason you go to trial is because you believe that the government’s got it wrong.”
Mike Abbell was a golden boy who, seemingly, was never quite golden enough, either for himself or his father. Maxwell Abbell was a hard-driving, prodigiously successful realtor, a self-made millionaire who idolized Horatio Alger. He loved winning and he planted in his youngest child a driving ambition, one that Mike Abbell has always hungered to fulfill.
Maxwell Abbell grew up in Chelsea, Mass., the son of dirt-poor Polish immigrants. Maxwell’s father made miserly sums as a Hebrew teacher. Maxwell won admission to Harvard with high test scores and worked his way through school by waiting tables. After graduating magna cum laude, he moved to Chicago. But he was Jewish and couldn’t find a job that matched his credentials. So, while doing daytime jobs for Jewish charities, he earned an M.B.A. from Northwestern and a law degree from Loyola University. He also met, through mutual friends, Fannie Edelman, a bright, genteel young woman from a bookish Chicago family. They were married in 1923.
Michael Edelman Abbell was the baby of the family, born in 1940, years after his brother and three sisters. He was, by all accounts, a model child—a skinny, bright, and sporty kid, a diligent Hebrew-school student and a keen summer camper. He soon became the focus of his ambitious father’s dreams.
There was a reason that Maxwell Abbell vested his hopes in Michael, beyond his son’s obvious gifts. Michael’s sisters were no slouches—all graduated from college—but Maxwell Abbell was a man of his era, and his eyes were focused on his boys. His eldest son, Samuel, had a genius IQ, but suffered from an ill-defined disability that made him speak slowly and act oddly. Some who knew the family thought Samuel simply couldn’t cope with the weight of his father’s expectations.
That left Michael.
“As contrasted to Sam, who was slow, he looked awfully good,” says Maxwell Rabb, an old family friend. “[His father] placed a lot of confidence and hope” in Michael.
“Michael’s father was interested in seeing that he did very well….[His father] exercised a lot of influence on Michael, maybe more than Michael wanted,” says Joseph Abbell, 85, Mike Abbell’s uncle.
The family prospered during Mike’s childhood. Maxwell Abbell founded law and accounting firms. Then, in the early ’40s, he began putting together real estate deals. Within a few years, Abbell owned interest in office buildings and hotels from Atlantic City to Los Angeles, from Manhattan’s Paramount to D.C.’s Willard, which he and partners bought in 1946 for $2.8 million. During the early ’50s, the family moved to a spacious three-story home on Euclid Avenue in Chicago’s then-upscale South Shore neighborhood.
The senior Abbell was generous with his good fortune. He steered millions to Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was on the board of directors, by giving the institution interest in his real estate deals. He donated more than $50,000 to build the Jerusalem synagogue that was named for him and now houses the famous Marc Chagall windows. He was president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the country’s pre-eminent Conservative Jewish organization. And he was a big Dwight Eisenhower booster. In 1955, Eisenhower appointed Abbell chairman of his new Committee on Government Employment Policy, which was charged with rooting out discrimination in government hiring. Soon, Maxwell Abbell was invited to one of Ike’s stag dinners at the White House.
His son, meanwhile, was attending Chicago’s prestigious, private University High School. Mike Abbell was a good student, but he loved sports more than school, playing a mean game of tennis. But Maxwell Abbell was most pleased when his 15-year-old son took a summer job at the family’s 170-room hotel in Estes Park, Colo. While his father was beating his guests at shuffleboard, the kid born with the silver spoon in his mouth sectioned grapefruits in the kitchen.
But all was not entirely well. Samuel had dropped out of law school and was failing at accounting, straining his already tense relationship with his parents. Maxwell Abbell suffered a heart attack. And Michael was under mounting pressure from his father to get into Harvard. “That, [Maxwell] wanted very much; that, he aimed for,” says Rabb.
Maxwell Abbell had become fast friends with Rabb, a Harvard alum who was the secretary to Eisenhower’s Cabinet. The senior Abbell began leaning on Rabb to use his influence on behalf of Michael’s Harvard application. In July 1957, Mike Abbell was admitted to Harvard off the waiting list.
“[Rabb] got him into Harvard,” says Joseph Abbell.
But Maxwell Abbell never knew about his son’s triumph. Just days before Mike received his acceptance letter, Maxwell died of a second heart attack. He was 55.
His father’s death seems to have left Mike Abbell obsessed with fulfilling Maxwell’s ambitions. But while the young Abbell was by all accounts a very bright kid, some say he lacked the street sense of his father, for whom business and political ventures had repeatedly turned to gold. Mike Abbell apparently craved similar success, but never found it in a legal career that went awry.
Abbell performed well enough at Harvard, though he was no superstar. He majored in economics, was a regular on the dean’s list, and enjoyed bridge and poker. His yearbook photo—he graduated in 1961—shows a thin-faced, serious man in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. He is leaning slightly toward the camera, his expression aloof and confident.
Classmates at Harvard Law School, from which Abbell graduated in 1964, remember him as affable but reserved to the point of withdrawal. “He was very quiet,” one classmate remarks. “I never saw him with women.” There was at least one reason for his unsociability: He was engaged to a Chicago woman he had met through mutual friends. They were married after his second year of law school.
Inspired by John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” inauguration speech, Abbell moved to Washington after his law-school graduation. He took a job at the Justice Department as a trial attorney in the Criminal Division. Despite the title, Abbell didn’t actually try cases, but instead reviewed FBI reports and coordinated federal investigations. After a two-year hiatus for Army service, Abbell returned to Justice, where he worked on the Chicago Seven grand jury investigation. He also led the unit implementing a 1968 gun-control law, and assisted the grand jury investigation of bribery allegations against Sen. Daniel Brewster of Maryland.
Abbell and his wife separated in 1967, and in 1968, the same year his divorce came through, Abbell met a young woman in a Wisconsin Avenue bar. She was three years younger than he and had worked on Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. Abbell married her in November 1970. Joyce Abbell is an attractive woman with a forthright manner. Her husband’s friends, colleagues and family call her gracious, attentive, and friendly.
Shortly before Abbell remarried, his brother Samuel was found dead in a New York hotel room. He may have suffered a stroke or taken an overdose of prescription drugs. Samuel had been unemployed and directionless for years. His death was a stark reminder to Abbell of the perils of failure—the dark side of his own growing success.
But by the early ’70s, Mike Abbell was well on his way to the life his father had envisioned for him. He was climbing the ladder in the Criminal Division at Justice, where he served as staff assistant to a succession of assistant attorneys general. Abbell ran sensitive grand jury investigations, implemented a groundbreaking prisoner-transfer treaty with Mexico, and helped design similar pacts with Bolivia, Peru, and Panama. Abbell impressed friends and neighbors as a smart lawyer, a rising star at Justice, and a devoted family man.
He was “very sociable. Family-oriented. Extremely intelligent,” says Michael Hantman, an Abbell neighbor during the ’70s. Nor was Abbell shy about his gifts, Hantman says. “Mike has a large ego. Mike was very aware of how good he was. He would let you know once in a while.”
Joyce and Michael Abbell had three sons: Joshua, Zachary, and Alex, born in ’73, ’76, and ’80. By all accounts, Abbell worshipped them.
“His children were the jewels of his eye. He would fall into baby discourse whenever the kids were around,” says Hantman.
In 1978, Mike and Joyce Abbell bought a house on Bethesda’s Carlynn Drive—a quiet, tony street near the Congressional Country Club—where they still live. The two-story tan brick house, valued at $560,000, is, like its owner, pleasant-looking but unimposing. Beside the driveway, pines and oaks crowd a wooded rise. A gray Lexus and a red Acura sit in the two-car garage. Tasteful Oriental rugs lie on hardwood floors in the spacious entranceway.
This is where Abbell spent months coaching the boys for their bar mitzvahs, where he played basketball with them in the driveway, and where his mother, who is now in her late 90s, came to visit before she grew too ill to travel. (Abbell makes frequent trips to Chicago to see her.)
“He’s a very good father. He’s a very good son. He has always conducted himself in an ethical manner,” says Abbell’s longtime rabbi, Samuel Scolnic.
But the golden boy began to lose his luster. In January 1979, Abbell started his job as head of the newly created Office of International Affairs (OIA). Colleagues say he wasn’t very good at it.
“This is the first person from Harvard that I have met that I have really thought “Boy, this person is just not up to snuff.’ I don’t think Mike is as good as his résumé,” says a former co-worker.
Abbell had been put in charge of the new office by Heymann, then assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division and later deputy attorney general to Janet Reno. During Abbell’s tenure, President Reagan began his War on Drugs, and OIA’s original staff of a half-dozen ballooned to more than 20.
The office was charged with aiding federal prosecutors in extraditing fugitives from and to the United States. OIA also helped government lawyers gather evidence abroad for criminal cases being tried in the United States, as well as helping foreign governments collect evidence here. (This kind of law is known as “international judicial assistance.”) Abbell had no experience in the field until he was appointed OIA’s head, and rumors swirled that Heymann, a Harvard Law School alum and professor, had placed Abbell in the job because of their Cambridge connection. Heymann disputes those rumors, and says that he picked Abbell because Abbell was recommended to him as the best candidate. “I didn’t give a damn if anyone was from Harvard or not from Harvard,” he says.
Abbell may have been a devoted family man, but he didn’t win any rave reviews for his people-skills at work. His frequent mentions of his alma mater hardly endeared him to his new colleagues. “He was a Harvard guy and let everybody know it. He was a rich kid and let everybody know it. He was full of himself and pompous,” says one.
Co-workers quickly grew to resent Abbell. They considered him a shameless self-promoter, a boss who snatched the perks of his position without pulling his weight as a manager. They acknowledge Abbell’s intellect, but they say he took little interest in the routine extradition and evidence-gathering cases that were the bread and butter of the office. According to colleagues, he never bothered handling a case himself—although that was the primary occupation of the line attorneys he supervised. “The opportunity was there, day in and day out. He had no interest in doing it. And I don’t think he would have been that good at it,” says one former colleague, who thinks Abbell wouldn’t have wanted to apply himself to the details of ordinary casework.
Abbell was known for grabbing coveted trips to conferences and treaty negotiations in exotic spots—sometimes bringing along a knowledgeable line attorney who would do the real work. “I felt that he was out for as many trips to foreign countries as he could get, and didn’t care much what happened there. He liked the travel. And I thought he didn’t accomplish much of substance, frequently misspoke, and screwed things up,” says one former colleague.
And even as he neglected his more mundane duties, Abbell reportedly sucked up to those in power. He delighted in testifying on the Hill and dropped flattering notes to former Harvard classmates when they landed plum jobs, or were written up on the front pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post. His supervisors became accustomed to the sight of Abbell hanging around, waiting for a chance to chat them up.
“I wouldn’t have picked him as one of the stars of the section chiefs, but he seemed to be doing a perfectly good job,” says Heymann.
As for Abbell’s ethics, Heymann adds: “Nobody in the Criminal Division including me thought there was any question about his honesty.”
All the same, Abbell’s bosses eventually concluded that he was not the right man for the OIA job, since he was neither a good manager nor a team player. And after 1980, he probably was not helped by another habit: relating Justice Department positions on Capitol Hill without the OK of his new bosses in the Reagan administration. In 1982, he was demoted to deputy director of OIA.
The demotion hit Abbell hard.
“He wanted to keep acting as if he was [director], and he didn’t like it because he wasn’t anymore,” says one colleague. Abbell hung on for two more years. Then, on Oct. 1, 1984, he resigned from the Justice Department.
Abbell’s grand ambitions lay in ruins. He landed a mediocre job: Kaplan Russin & Vecchi, a big commercial firm with a large international practice, hired him “of counsel”—a nonpartnership position—to do what they thought would be mainly white-collar criminal defense law. Abbell found himself, at age 44, with a résumé full of arcane experience valuable to drug lords, but few others.
Then, in 1985, Abbell made a fateful career choice. In April, he was contacted by a representative of Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, a reputed co-founder of the Cali cartel. Rodriguez-Orejuela was in Spain fighting extradition to the United States, where he faced drug-trafficking indictments in New York and California. Rodriguez-Orejuela’s lawyers needed expert American help. They asked Abbell to join the defense team.
Friends and former colleagues describe Abbell as a man acutely sensitive to legal conflicts of interest and ethical propriety. So it’s not surprising that he sought a written clearance from the Justice Department before going to work for Rodriguez-Orejuela. What is astounding—and more than a tad ironic, given the zeal with which Justice is now pursuing Abbell—is that the clearance was granted.
Justice’s clearance letter, dated May 17, 1985, was signed by John Keeney, a deputy assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division. Keeney wrote that the department didn’t see why Abbell’s work at Justice should disqualify him from helping Rodriguez-Orejuela. Federal rules bar lawyers from representing defendants on matters they were “personally and substantially” involved while in the government. But Abbell hadn’t been “personally and substantially” involved with the Rodriguez-Orejuela matter when he was with Justice, Keeney wrote. “Accordingly, you are not disqualified under the Post-Employment rules for Government lawyers.”
While Keeney’s assessment may have been true in the narrow sense—Abbell was not directly involved with chasing Rodriguez-Orejuela during his Justice tenure—it’s difficult to understand how department officials convinced themselves that Abbell’s unique, taxpayer-financed, extradition-law experience did not include any matter germane to the drug lord’s case. After all, by 1984, he probably knew more than anyone about how the federal government tracks down drug criminals abroad. No one was better placed to keep cocaine kingpins out of U.S. hands.
Keeney, who still serves as deputy assistant attorney general, declines comment on the Abbell case. “The letter speaks for itself,” adds Justice Department spokesman John Russell.
Peter Bensinger, who headed DEA from 1976 to ’81, has made something of a cause of Abbell’s role reversal. In the wake of the Abbell indictment, Bensinger is pushing for a four-year moratorium on Justice Department prosecutors defending targets of federal investigations after quitting government service.
“How is it possible for lawyers who once fought the drug trade to join the other side?” Bensinger wrote recently in the New York Times. “Mr. Abbell has done something ethically indefensible.”
Abbell has never thought so. In a 1989 letter to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), that Abbell recently provided to Washington City Paper, he argued that “my actions in representing an alleged major cocaine trafficker after leaving the Department of Justice are no different than those of numerous former assistant U.S. attorneys who represent such persons.” Nor, he contended, did he behave differently from former senators who lobby former colleagues on behalf of private companies. In fact, Abbell wrote, “I went beyond the dictates of the conflict of interest laws and regulations by obtaining clearance from the Department of Justice even though the nature of my work in that case did not require such clearance….I have acted in accordance with the strictest dictates of professional ethics.”
Abbell flew to Spain in January 1986 for Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela’s extradition hearing. (Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela is the older brother of Miguel. Miguel is the cartel ringleader for whom the government says Abbell committed most of his alleged crimes.) Abbell—veteran of numerous federal grand juries—offered astonishing testimony. Earl Silbert, a lawyer representing Abbell’s law firm, describes what Abbell said in papers dated December 1994 and recently provided to Washington City Paper by Abbell.
According to the papers, Abbell told the Spanish court that the U.S. grand jury that indicted Rodriguez-Orejuela was unfair to defendants. He testified that Spain should not consider the result of a one-sided grand jury investigation sufficient grounds for extradition. Abbell’s arguments enraged the Spanish prosecutor, who attacked Abbell as a turncoat, the Post later reported.
Abbell’s testimony also steamed his old colleagues at OIA, which had prepared the extradition request. While they concede that Abbell had jumped through the right hoops by seeking the department’s blessing, they felt deeply betrayed. “I don’t think we ever dreamed he’d get involved in the cases involving the major narcotics traffickers,” says one. “It’s just unfathomable that somebody could spend all that time and energy on something and then just turn right around and do the opposite.”
Ultimately, Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela and his lawyers evaded the United States by arranging instead for his extradition to Colombia, from which it is impossible for the United States to extradite drug fugitives. In 1987, Rodriguez-Orejuela was acquitted at the trial where DEA agent Crawford saw Abbell conferring with Rodriguez-Orejuela’s Colombian lawyers.
Cartel affairs were not Abbell’s only occupation during the late ’80s. He spent a good chunk of time co-authoring a huge treatise, International Judicial Assistance. Abbell’s four volumes, published in 1990, summed up his years of expert knowledge, and have become the standard work in the field.
But Abbell did more and more work for the Cali bosses. In 1987, the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers hired Abbell to write a legal opinion for them on whether a recent Colombian Supreme Court decision protected them from extradition to the United States. The indictment says that Abbell flew to Cali twice in early 1988 and met with Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela in his home. Laguna, the young Colombian lawyer, translated, say the feds. By his own admission to the Post at the time, Abbell had made six or more trips to Cali by 1989, in part to advise the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers and other Cali bosses on how to avoid extradition.
The partners at Kaplan Russin & Vecchi were growing uneasy. They had hired Abbell to do white-collar—not white-powder—defense work, and they had assumed Abbell’s 1986 testimony for Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela in Spain was a one-shot deal. Fearing the reactions of their other clients, they asked Abbell to use his own letterhead when handling Cali matters.
“A lot of our partners were just horrified” at the connection with the drug lords, says one former partner. “We did not want to be involved in any way.”
But Abbell didn’t retreat from his new line of work. He attended the Miami trial of another Cali operative, Luis Santacruz Echeverri. The half-brother of cartel kingpin Jose Santacruz-Londono, Echeverri was charged with importing cocaine. “Mr. Abbell was retained to assist on legal and factual issues, not as a trial lawyer,” the Silbert documents state.
The Kaplan partners blanched when Abbell proposed—amid vocal denunciations from the State Department—that Colombian traffickers tried in the United States be allowed to serve their time in Colombia, where sentences are shorter and prison security for drug lords used to be notoriously lax.
In October 1989, the Post reported that Abbell had been lobbying the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). He was pushing for treaty changes that could have helped his cartel clients resist extradition by making it possible for them to gather evidence in foreign countries. (That August, the American Bar Association unanimously passed a resolution that Abbell authored supporting the changes.) Abbell submitted 30 pages of written testimony to the committee. In the testimony, he criticized the position of his old employers at Justice, who were fighting the changes. Abbell wrote that they were showing “a shockingly callous disregard” for the rights of criminal defendants. But, the Post noted, Abbell hadn’t told the committee that his clients happened to be the world’s leading drug dealers.
When he learned of Abbell’s affiliation, Sen. Kerry was outraged and harshly rebuked the lawyer.
Abbell wrote to Kerry pointing out that he had testified only at the invitation of the committee’s minority counsel. What’s more, he wrote, he had identified himself in his testimony as a private lawyer specializing in international extradition and evidence-gathering abroad. If the committee hadn’t put two and two together, that was its problem. He had hidden nothing. “Had the Committee staff asked me about the nature of my clients, I would have provided it with appropriate information,” he wrote. But in any case, “I was not performing work for any Colombian client, I was not on retainer to any Colombian client, and I was not even in contact with anyone in Colombia” while lobbying for the treaty changes. “It is plainly erroneous to contend that I was simultaneously representing Colombian drug interests while I was lobbying on behalf of NACDL.”
But either Abbell is lying or the indictment is wrong. His testimony to the committee is dated May 6, 1988, and June 14, 1988. According the indictment, Abbell traveled to Cali in January 1988 and May 1988. On both trips, the indictment says, “Abbell and Francisco Laguna went to the home of Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela” for “conversations.”
In the documents Abbell provided to Washington City Paper, attorney Earl Silbert emphasized that “[Abbell] was NOT representing ANY client in relation to the treaties, but undertook his efforts solely as a pro bono public interest responsibility.” His concern was “directed solely at overcoming the one-sidedness of the treaties” by making sure that criminal defendants had access to the same methods as prosecutors for gathering evidence from abroad.
Kaplan Russin & Vecchi had finally reached its limit with Abbell. About the same time the Post story broke, the partners received a frantic letter from their Bogotá office. The lawyers there had begun to fear for their lives because of Abbell’s connection with the cartel. The Cali organization was approaching an all-out war in Bogotá with the rival Medellín cartel. Any public affiliation of the firm with the Cali group could be disastrous. The letter pleaded with the partners to dump Abbell. The partners agreed. Abbell resigned in October 1989, calling his work “incompatible” with the interests of the firm. He and Bruno Ristau, a Kaplan partner who had headed Justice’s Office of Foreign Litigation for 18 years and coauthored International Judicial Assistance, soon opened a D.C. criminal-law firm, Ristau & Abbell.
In 1990, governments in Luxembourg, the United States, and elsewhere seized $65 million in cartel assets. The seizure appears to have propelled Mike Abbell into much more active participation with the cartel.
The government says that during a meeting in Cali in late 1990, Abbell was retained by Jose Santacruz-Londono—a key cartel boss and money launderer from whom the $65 million had been taken. The indictment says that Santacruz-Londono hired Abbell to coordinate a defense against the forfeiture suits—that is, to keep Santacruz-Londono from losing the millions the governments had frozen.
But even more startling, the feds allege that Abbell became, in effect, an in-house lawyer to the cartel when he signed up with Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela. The indictment claims that Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela put Abbell on retainer in late 1990 or early 1991, asking him to represent his general U.S. interests. The drug boss then wired him $60,000 as a down-payment for future services. Shortly after that payment, the government says, Abbell hired Laguna as a Ristau & Abbell associate in Miami.
The alleged change in Abbell’s employment status was an important one. It is perfectly legal for a lawyer to represent cartel bosses who are facing criminal charges—as Abbell did at the 1987 Cali trial. But it is illegal for a lawyer to go on staff in an open-ended way for a group that he or she knows is criminal. Accepting such a position is tantamount to signing on with the Mob.
Abbell has flatly denied ever being on retainer for Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela. “Mr. Abbell has never had a general retainer agreement with…Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela (or with any other client he has represented in a criminal matter),” Silbert wrote in the 1994 documents.
It is important to understand just how much Santacruz-Londono and Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela were loathed by federal authorities when Abbell represented them. The feds describe Santacruz-Londono, a DEA fugitive since 1980, as a “vicious” man who is “one of the premier drug traffickers in the world.” He has been repeatedly indicted in the United States and was also suspected in a high-profile 1989 political assassination in Colombia. While Abbell worked for him, he was also linked to the 1992 murder of a New York investigative journalist. Santacruz-Londono’s New York-centered, multicontinental, cocaine-distribution and money-laundering operation has earned him several billion dollars, the DEA says.
Rodriguez-Orejuela was equally despised. The DEA says Rodriguez-Orejuela was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Rodriguez-Orejuela branch of the cartel—its most powerful. He oversaw money laundering and supervised the production, transportation, and wholesale distribution of multiton coke shipments from Colombia to North America and Europe.
This summer, this loathing changed to gloating. Colombian authorities captured Santacruz-Londono and the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers. “The Cali Mafia has spread its poison, death and destruction…around the world,” DEA spokesman James McGivney declared at the time of the arrests. “[It] is the most powerful drug trafficking organization in history.”
And President Clinton last month singled out Abbell’s former clients in his speech to the United Nations. Clinton announced he was making an example of the Cali kingpins by freezing their U.S. assets. “We must not allow them to wash the blood off the profits from the sale of drugs, from terror,” the president said.
But the Colombians’ reputations didn’t seem to concern Abbell much. In the early ’90s, Abbell dove headlong into representing his new clients. According to documents Abbell provided to Washington City Paper, he selected trial lawyers who participated in the forfeiture suits against Santacruz-Londono in New York and Luxembourg. He helped the trial lawyers gather evidence and sat with them at the New York trial. At the Luxembourg trial, where he wasn’t licensed to practice law, he sat in the back row of the courtroom, the documents say.
But an assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute the 1992 New York case says Abbell was anything but a bystander. “It’s a falsehood to say that Mr. Abbell simply sat by,” says Arthur Hui. “He participated fully throughout the entire course of the lawsuit.”
Abbell also filed a claim in the New York proceedings to recoup several million dollars of the frozen money, arguing that it was the inheritance of Santacruz-Londono’s wife from her father. This claim led to one of the strangest twists in this complicated case. While the feds state that Abbell was working for Santacruz-Londono, Abbell asserts that he was only working for the drug dealer’s relatives. “Mr. Abbell has never represented [Santacruz-Londono] in relation to any matter pending in the Eastern District of New York,” Abbell’s lawyer Silbert writes. “The seized funds were the legitimately earned” capital of Santacruz-Londono’s wife’s family, “not the proceeds [of Santacruz-Londono’s] drug trafficking.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hui calls Abbell’s story “a sham.”
“He was representing [Santacruz-Londono] in these matters,” Hui says. “And I’m confident that will be borne out in [Abbell’s trial].”
While preparing for the suits, Abbell allegedly dispatched Laguna to Colombia to collect documents vouching for the legitimacy of the money. On Laguna’s return, “Abbell voiced his concern…about the obvious falsity of the…documents,” the indictment says. He sent Laguna back to Colombia to collect better fakes, according to the charges. The younger lawyer returned with a new set of papers that satisfied Abbell, who allegedly filed them in New York and Luxembourg. In the papers, an economist working for Santacruz-Londono reportedly describes the sources of the seized money as a cattle farm, a textile factory, and a sugar cane plantation.
The cartel and Santacruz-Londono’s wife both lost in New York, and most of the millions were forfeited. U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein called the evidence that the money was laundered “overwhelming,” according to the Post.
While he was allegedly helping Santacruz-Londono, Abbell didn’t neglect his other Cali client. Abbell reportedly flew to Cali to meet with Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela at least six times between 1988 and 1994. Abbell had plenty to do, as federal enforcement efforts escalated, and the cartel found itself in ever-hotter water. The cartel’s main Miami operative, Harold Ackerman, was jailed in April 1992, shortly after 7.5 tons of cocaine arrived in Miami concealed inside shipments of frozen broccoli and okra.
According to the indictment, Abbell and Laguna visited Ackerman in federal prison in Tallahassee that September. The feds say Abbell suggested that Ackerman sign an affidavit falsely declaring Rodriguez-Orejuela clean. According to the charges, Laguna prepared the affidavit, and Abbell vetted it. Then Abbell allegedly called one of Ackerman’s lawyers in Miami and offered to have Rodriguez-Orejuela pay the lawyer’s fees in exchange for the lawyer’s help in persuading Ackerman to sign the affidavit. That December, Abbell dispatched Laguna to collect Ackerman’s signature from prison, which he did. The government claims that Abbell repeated this affidavit procedure, with variations, for a half-dozen other imprisoned cartel members. In one case, the indictment says, Abbell promised a cartel operative that his legal fees would be paid if he simply agreed not to talk to the feds.
The indictment also says that Abbell supervised the distribution of at least $600,000 in drug money to lawyers for five of the prisoners—the basis of the money-laundering charge. Often the indictment portrays Abbell as a sort of impresario, supervising Laguna, who seems to be the most deeply immersed of all the lawyers in the day-to-day dealings of the cartel. (Laguna, who speaks Spanish, called Rodriguez-Orejuela regularly from public phones.)
Most of the other lawyers charged by the feds—all of whom worked in Miami—appear to have acted independently of Abbell, and sometimes in more sinister ways. William Moran, the other lawyer going to trial with Abbell, allegedly fingered a government informer for one of his cartel clients. Two months later, the informer was murdered. Joel Rosenthal, the former federal prosecutor, traveled to visit Cali operative Gustavo Naranjo in a Texas jail shortly after Naranjo was arrested. Rosenthal reportedly asked him if he was cooperating with the feds. When Naranjo said he wasn’t, according to the indictment, Rosenthal said “it was good that he was not cooperating because Naranjo knew what would happen if he did cooperate.” Robert Moore, another of the lawyers, was reportedly less subtle. He allegedly told the imprisoned Ackerman that “if he cooperated, he and his entire family would be killed.”
Besides Laguna, Donald Ferguson, who pleaded guilty in July, could hurt Abbell most. Abbell reportedly brought Ferguson on board for his extensive courtroom experience—something Abbell lacked. The indictment says Ferguson attended the Cali meeting where Abbell signed on with Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela. And Ferguson allegedly accompanied Laguna, with Abbell’s knowledge, on a prison visit where the two tried to silence a cartel henchman.
In the summer of 1994, Abbell allegedly wiped out his computer files on Rodriguez-Orejuela. But if he was otherwise worried about a federal investigation, he wasn’t showing it. The indictment says he subsequently traveled to Miami and Cali, sent Laguna to visit a cartel member in a New York jail, and called still another cartel prisoner’s lawyer seeking a deposition exonerating Rodriguez-Orejuela. But in September 1994, Abbell’s practice came to an abrupt end. Federal agents raided the D.C. and Miami offices of Ristau & Abbell and seized computers and files.
There are many questions the indictment doesn’t answer about Abbell, but none is more important than this one: If Abbell committed these crimes, why did he do it? Why would a government lawyer join a criminal syndicate?
Ordinary people have a hard time understanding how criminal defenders can do what they do: defend thugs who chop people up and encase their body parts in concrete, who rape and torture children, who blow up federal buildings. Many Americans wonder if the justice system permits too much in the quest to protect defendants’ rights.
But Abbell’s rapid transformation from a federal prosecutor to a drug-boss defender strains the credulity of even seasoned lawyers.
“It’s such a long trip from being a prosecutor interested in extraditing criminals…to representing them,” says Heymann, now a Harvard Law School professor, who calls the Cali cartel “some of the worst of the crowd” that Abbell had been pursuing at Justice.
Other defense lawyers note that upstanding federal prosecutors join defenders’ ranks every day. Their training is perfect preparation for the job, and it’s “ludicrous” to suggest barring them from it, says Alan Ellis, a former president of NACDL.
Abbell, at any rate, apparently did not lose any sleep over his new role. “My duty is to my clients—to see that their rights are properly represented,” he told the Post.
But why the drug cartels, the most heinous of the heinous? It certainly wasn’t the money. Maxwell Abbell bequeathed Michael and his siblings trust funds worth at least several million dollars, according to Joseph Abbell. “He was under no financial pressure,” Mike Abbell’s uncle says. And while it’s impossible to say how much Abbell netted from the Cali bosses—the indictment lists just one payment to Abbell, for $60,000—they certainly didn’t make him incredibly wealthy.
What’s more, conspicuous consumption has never appealed to Abbell. On the contrary, he was known among his co-workers at Justice as a skinflint. One colleague remembers Abbell serving wine at a diplomatic party—in tiny plastic shot glasses.
“I never saw a manifestation of a person who had become terribly affluent from his clients. He was always quite conservative in his manner and his dress and his style,” says one longtime acquaintance.
In the end, what may have driven Abbell to Cali was his desire to meet his dad’s expectations. Abbell appears to have been seduced by power—the kind he never had at Justice. To a humiliated 44-year-old, the drug lords offered the headiness of their lawless reign, the allure of being counted in their inner circle, the ego trip of having the most powerful men in Colombia, men worth billions, summoning him to their living rooms and relying on his sage advice.
Gerald Shargel, the celebrated New York lawyer who represented Mafia boss John Gotti and other members of the Gambino crime family, paints a vivid picture of the rush he feels representing big-time criminals.
“There’s a thrill involved,” Shargel told the New Yorker. “The guy who feels most important at a rock concert is the lawyer in the third row with the backstage pass clipped to his belt….I love the fact that when you represent someone you are automatically elevated to that person’s level.”
The case against Michael Abbell turns on the word “knowingly,” which appears again and again in the indictment. He “knowingly and corruptly” obstructed justice, conspired to import 220 tons of cocaine, and laundered drug money, it says.
“The fulcrum for this case is going to be Abbell’s state of mind when he did certain things,” says Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University. “What Abbell is alleged to have done outside court [in preparing false affidavits] is like putting a witness on the stand who you know will perjure himself.”
Some criminal defenders speculate that the government lacks the evidence to prove Abbell’s state of mind and that, without such evidence, Abbell will be shown guilty of nothing beyond doing his job.
“They don’t have anything of Mr. Abbell saying anything that’s anywhere near incriminating,” says Abbell’s lawyer, Black.
It is not a crime, for example, for a lawyer to receive money from a client and pay a portion of it out to another lawyer, as Abbell allegedly did in dishing out Rodriguez-Orejuela’s money to the lawyers representing cartel prisoners. The government must prove that Abbell knew the money came from drug proceeds.
Nor was it criminal for Abbell to gather affidavits proclaiming his client’s innocence unless he knew for a fact that their contents were false (and knowledge is legally different from suspicion, or even belief). Nor was it even criminal for Abbell to agree to be available to handle the Cali bosses’ legal problems on an open-ended basis—to be, in effect, their in-house lawyer—unless he knew they ran a criminal enterprise.
On this last point, some of Abbell’s own words may come back to haunt him. In 1981, when he was head of OIA, Abbell wrote a letter to the Swiss government about Jose Santacruz-Londono’s bank records. In the letter, Abbell described the cartel as a “large cocaine trafficking operation.” He wrote that the records he sought would show the “laundering of millions of dollars in profits from illegal trafficking in narcotics.”
Abbell has since distanced himself from the letter, saying that his signature was a routine rubber stamp on a letter drafted by a distant assistant U.S. attorney. Abbell did not play “a substantive role” in the OIA inquiry, Silbert wrote in the 1994 documents. And the matter “was an unexceptional one to which Mr. Abbell would not have paid special attention.”
By 1989, in any case, Abbell was whistling a different tune. According to the Post, Abbell said of the cartel, “My impression is that they are legitimate businessmen….I have never seen any cocaine or drugs whenever I have been with them.” At the time, cartel leaders occupied six spots on a list of the Bush administration’s 12 most-wanted drug fugitives.
A number of people who have known Abbell believe that, unlike the other lawyers who were indicted, he simply wasn’t street-savvy enough to know that he was in trouble. They think that he may have simply gotten in over his head with a group of drug bosses who knew a sucker when they saw him and pounced. They think that the cartel’s manipulation, combined with Abbell’s thwarted ambition, poor judgment, and naiveté, gradually lured him across the line into the unthinkable.
“I just think he didn’t have a clue, to a certain extent, what he was doing, or why what he was doing was wrong,” says a former colleague. “Which doesn’t exonerate him.”