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Archive for October 1st, 2009

NY Feds Bust Gambling Operation Run by Luchese Crime Family

football-gambling

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

In the gambling world there are lucky days and not so lucky days.

Thursday was a “not so lucky day” for suspected members and associates of the Luchese crime family in New York who were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of running an illegal gambling, sports betting and loan sharking operation and trying to bribe New York cops.

In all, 19 people were indicted in the gambling ring. Of that group, 12 were charged as members, associates and conspirators of the Luchese crime family, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.  Eighteen of the 19 of the suspects were arrested on Thursday.

Authorities alleged that as part of the gambling operation in in 2006 to 2007, several defendants participated in a scheme to bribe a N.Y. police sergeant and a detective  for protection. Unbeknownst to the suspected wise guys, the cops were actually working undercover as part of the two year probe, authorities said.

Read more »

Fed Judge Orders Govt. to Release Substantial Part of FBI Interview With Ex-V.P. Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney/meet the press

Dick Cheney/meet the press

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com
WASHINGTON — A federal judge issued a ruling Thursday saying the government has to release a substantial portion of  an FBI interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney tied to the probe into the leak identifying CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations wanted to keep the 2004 interview confidential. They argued releasing the materials might prevent future vice presidents from cooperating in criminal probes.

But Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesting to see what amounted to 67-pages of records documenting the interview.

U.S. District Judge Emmet J. Sullivan, in his ruling on Thursday wrote because the case is over: “The court concludes that the agency has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the requested documents were properly withheld in their entirety under any FOIA exemption protecting law enforcement interests.”

But he added: “Limited portions of those documents, however, were properly withheld under exemptions designed to protect information that is privileged or that could impinge on personal privacy or threaten national security.”

Read Judge’s Ruling

How the Fed’s Case Against a Suspected LA Gangster Imploded After Convicting Him on 50-Plus Counts

George Torres/la city beat photo
George Torres/la city beat photo

By Jeffrey Anderson
For ticklethewire.com

The defense lawyer for accused racketeer George Torres smelled blood. Torres, a self-made grocery store magnate and suspected drug kingpin, who was both feared and revered in the barrios of South Los Angeles, was on trial in federal court.

Prosecution witnesses were lined up waiting to testify that he was a brutal gangster, who exploited immigrants, cheated on his taxes and ordered gangland murders.

Yet at the trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in April it was Torres’ attorney, Steven Madison, a former federal prosecutor, who went on the offensive, insisting that a rogue L.A. detective had a vendetta against his client.

The detective, Greg Kading, was making promises and threats to witnesses and withholding evidence from the defense in his zeal to see Torres convicted, Madison argued.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson had made no effort to hide his disdain for the government’s case that finally came to fruition after 20 years of failed drug investigations of one of Los Angeles’ most elusive underworld figures.

Still, on April 20, the jury delivered a resounding victory for the prosecution, convicting Torres on 50-plus counts including two of the most critical ones: RICO counts (Racketeering Influenced And Corrupt Organizations Act) that involved criminal conspiracy and solicitation of murder.

In June, within two months of the verdict, the case unraveled and became a growing embarrassment for the U.S. Attorney’s office. The government voluntarily dismissed the two major RICO counts after serious flaws in the case were exposed.

Judge Wilson ordered Torres released from prison, where he had been held without bail since his arrest in June 2007.  And Torres decided to sell  his grocery chain to an L.A. based equity firm with a Houston partner, according to the L.A. Business Journal.

Last month, the judge delivered the final blow to the prosecution in a blistering 147-page order: “The court is disturbed by the conduct in this case,” he wrote of the government’s handling of key witnesses involving a pair of murders allegedly directed by Torres. He then ordered a new trial on remaining tax and bribery counts for Torres, whom the government was never able to catch with drugs or drug money.

“The Court finds it likely that the jury could have been improperly influenced by the subtext of the entire case, which was that George Torres was somehow involved in drug-trafficking,” Wilson wrote in his September 18 order.

Now, despite a jury verdict that once threatened to put him away for life, Torres, a fruit truck operator turned owner of the multi-million dollar Numero Uno supermarket chain and vast swaths of real estate, is a free man.

The case is perhaps another cautionary tale of how complex cases can go so wrong for a U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But the big question is: How did this one implode?

The Los Angeles media followed Madison’s lead and blamed L.A.P.D. Det. Greg Kading, the lead investigator on the case. The reality is far more complicated: a perfect storm of questionable witnesses, fallible detectives and a bold strategy advanced by Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Searight, who succumbed to an unusually assertive and skeptical judge.

The outcome has been a clear embarrassment for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and tarnished both Kading, who was dropped from the DEA task force, and Searight, chief of his offices’ narcotics division, who was replaced on the case by a superior.

Neither Searight nor Kading would comment for this story. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says it is prepared to re-try Torres on the non-RICO counts.

Torres’ attorney Robert Eisfelder remarked: “We’re extremely grateful for the time and effort the court put into this opinion.”

For decades, law enforcers suspected Torres as a drug kingpin with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, a Mexican organization known to have tentacles in Southern California.

Unsolved murders in the graffiti-scarred area around his flagship Numero Uno supermarket in South Los Angeles, along with an eerie deference by the locals, caused L.A. homicide detectives to regard him as a dangerous man.

Torres’ tendency to use coded language over the phone when talking to associates who were major drug traffickers, his preference to meet them to talk in person, and his use of a Puerto Rican bank known for its lack of cooperation with government investigations convinced drug investigators that he was a kingpin.

A father of five with a wife and a female companion who both bear his last name, Torres also earned a reputation for hard work, good customer service and fair prices at his 11-store chain of supermarkets, which he launched in the early 1980s.Until his indictment he perhaps was best known as the real estate partner of Horacio Vignali, father of Carlos Vignali, a drug dealer set free by President Clinton in the 2000 Pardongate scandal.

Torres’ indictment in 2007 on RICO charges stemmed from wiretap investigations in 1998 and 2004 of two associates and drug dealers, Derrick “Bo-D” Smith and Raul Del Raul.

The two were serving lengthy sentences for drug trafficking when they agreed to testify against Torres, who Del Real referred to as “boss,” even though Del Real never worked at Numero Uno. Del Real, Smith and others would finger Torres during trial in three unsolved murders in South L.A.

But while the 2004 wiretap investigation aimed to prove Torres was involved with Del Real’s violent drug trafficking conspiracy, which extended from Mexico to the East Coast, a tap of Torres’ phone yielded evidence of other crimes. Still, investigators never seized drugs or drug money in the case.

In February, during a pretrial hearing, Judge Wilson remarked: “It’s been pretty clear to me that the government’s strategy is to try a drugless drug case. Why wouldn’t a jury who is not deaf and dumb figure that out?”

At trial, Searight decided not to focus in on Torres as drug kingpin. Instead, he embraced the idea of him as a racketeer, a man who ran his supermarkets as a criminal enterprise in which he extorted money from helpless immigrants, bribed public officials and hired drug dealers to intimidate and sometimes kill those who crossed him.

The theory was fraught from the start. Judge Wilson distrusted the government’s use of the criminal RICO statute, which was enacted in the 1970s to disrupt the activities of the Mafia. By the time the case went to trial in March, the judge put Searight on notice that he was going to watch the government like a hawk.

During the trial the judge ended up suppressing evidence, throwing out some counts and accusing L.A. Det. Kading of acting with “reckless disregard for the truth” by misquoting conversations from a wiretap on Torres’ phone in a search warrant affidavit.

Seizing on the judge’s disdain, defense attorney Madison hammered away at Detective Kading’s credibility. Tapes of jailhouse conversations showed Kading resorting to inducements and threats to keep in line star witnesses and convicted drug dealers Del Real, who was serving 14 years and Smith, who was serving 24-years.

One call showed Kading offering to help Del Real’s brother stay out of trouble with the police. Another made it look as if Kading was supplying the answers to questions for Smith to say yes to.

Madison also complained of evidence that had not been turned over, such as police logs of witness interviews. He accused Kading of being obsessed with destroying Torres, and with bribing witnesses to corroborate a phony story.

The jurors didn’t buy it, convicting on more than 50 felonies that included Torres ordering the murder of an L.A. gang member named Jose “Shorty” Maldonando, who had tried to extort a tax from him. They acquitted him on one of the serious RICO counts involving the murder of Torres’ former right hand man Ignacio Meza.

Then Madison really went to work, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office saw its case come apart at the seams.

After the trial, Madison asked Judge Wilson to toss the verdict on grounds that Kading had tainted the entire case with lawless tactics. Madison turned up more tapes of jailhouse conversations that the government had not previously disclosed involving Kading, drug dealers Smith and Del Real, and other informants.

The tapes showed Detective Kading reminding one witness that he could face charges for other crimes if he refused to testify against Torres. The tapes also showed that Del Real and Smith expected early release and perhaps financial gain for testifying against Torres. No such deals could be confirmed.

Madison also discovered that Los Angeles defense attorney Wayne Higgins, a lawyer for Smith, allegedly received a free navigational system from a used car salesman with Kading’s help. Higgins had no comment.

Under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, a failure to turn over such information – on the part of the prosecutor – can be grounds for a new trial or dismissal if the information is favorable to the defendant and may have prejudiced the outcome of the case.

On June 9, Wilson ordered Torres released from prison, after the U.S. Attorney’s Office dismissed the RICO case against Torres.

“Torres is clearly entitled to a new trial,” Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office told reporters at the time. “And after a review of the totality of the case we decided not to pursue the RICO case any further.”

Madison moved in for the kill, arguing that “inflammatory” racketeering evidence tainted the jury in weighing the remaining bribery and tax counts, and asking the judge to dismiss the entire case.

While the judge in his lengthy September order manages to deny most of the defense requests, he also manages to drive a stake through the heart of the United States v. Torres. And he reserves his harshest comment for federal prosecutor Searight:

“A prosecutor who does not appreciate the perils of using rewarded criminals as witnesses risks compromising the truth-seeking mission of our criminal justice system.”

Wilson ordered the new trial for the remaining non-RICO charges primarily on the spillover effect – essentially that the questionable RICO charges had tainted the other charges.

He also said the non-RICO guilty verdicts against Torres on tax, harboring illegal immigrants and bribery were based on a “weak” case and bolstered by witnesses who were “not credible” because they had not been prosecuted for their part in Torres’ tax crimes.

In issuing his order, the judge clearly had little regard or respect for the jury’s judgment. Many of his findings are prefaced with the words “No reasonable juror could conclude …” He questioned whether jurors were paying attention, or blinded by the lurid details and hardened witnesses from Torres’ inner circle.

“The jury was undoubtedly given the impression that George Torres was an unsavory character in light of his longtime friendship and associations with these despicable human beings,” Wilson wrote.

Of such a thorough undoing of such an overwhelming guilty verdict, veteran defense attorney Mike Stone, a lawyer for Detective Kading said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a case go like this.”

Asked why he thought the government dismissed the RICO counts without a fight Stone said, “I don’t think they’d have rolled over like that if they didn’t think they had a chance of keeping the other counts.”

Judge Wilson wondered the same, and speculated in his order: “Perhaps [the prosecution] concluded they could not proceed in good faith. If they had dismissed the RICO sooner, Torres would’ve enjoyed a trial that was free from the spillover prejudice of the RICO counts. Because of the government’s own failures, however, this information was not revealed until after the trial began.”

Defense attorney Steven Madison thinks he knows why the government caved. “My sense is that the government has concluded it cannot trust Kading,” he said in June, after the government dropped the meat of its case. “Searight relied on an unreliable guy.”

Madison’s focus on Detective Kading as the scapegoat in the case may have been unfair considering there were other investigators who failed to disclose certain conversations they had during the probe.

Veteran investigators familiar with the case are displeased with the way Kading has been dragged through the mud.

Speaking on background, a number of law enforcers said that Searight was cowed by the judge and was not aggressive in refuting the defense’s broadside attacks against Kading. Several said that Searight should have made sure that all Brady information was turned over to the defense.

Others see Judge Wilson as the wildcard. “A good defense attorney is going to sense a sympathetic judge and argue every technicality he can,” says a federal prosecutor familiar with the Torres case. “Federal judges are powerful. Maybe Wilson was stunned by the jury verdict. Judges can’t control jury deliberations but they control post-trial motions.”

The veteran prosecutor concedes, “It is virtually impossible to control every asset or agent in a case, and sometimes the cumulative effect can look bad.”

Not to mention the value of a stellar defender who appreciates when conditions are ripe for upheaval: “Madison kept pushing to see how far he could go in taking apart the case,” the veteran prosecutor says, “and he went pretty far.”

Read Previous stories on Torres by Jeffrey Anderson

Los Angeles City Beat (2/18/09)

Pasadena Weekly (4/2/09)

LA Weekly (6/14/07)

Read the Judge’s Ruling

Beth Phillips Would be First Woman U.S. Atty. in Kansas City

kansas-city-mapBy Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com
WASHINGTON — It’s hard to believe in the 21st Century that this would be a first.

But apparently that’s the case. President Obama on Wednesday nominated Beth Phillips for U.S. Attorney in Kansas City. That would make her the first woman to hold that high-level position in Kansas City.

The Kansas City Star reported the nomination for the Western District of Missouri.

Phillips became an assistant U.S. Attorney in 2008. Previously, the paper said, she worked in private practice and in the Jackson county prosecutor’s office.

On Wednesday, President Obama also nominated for U.S. Attorney posts:  Stephanie Villafuerte, Colo. Gov. Bill Ritter’s deputy chief of staff for community outreach, for Colorado; and Sanford Coats for the Western District of Oklahoma.

Fed Judge Says FBI is Liable For Murders by Boston Mobsters; Awards Families $1.85 Mil

The outcome was certainly not surprising. But what may be interesting is whether this ruling opens the door for any similar cases around the country. Surely there have been other cases around the country in which federal informants have killed people while snitching for the FBI or DEA or ATF.

Steve Flemmi/dateline nbc

Steve Flemmi/dateline nbc

By Shelley Murphy
Boston Globe
BOSTON — A federal judge ruled yesterday that the government is liable for the killings of two young women and a man allegedly slain by longtime FBI informants James “Whitey” Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, but awarded limited damages to the women’s families.

US District Judge William G. Young ordered the government to pay $350,000 to the families of each of the three victims, because of the conscious pain and suffering endured by Debra Davis, 26, who was strangled in 1981; Deborah Hussey, 26, strangled in 1985; and Louis Litif, 45, who was stabbed and shot in 1980.

Whitey Bulger

Whitey Bulger

The judge awarded an additional $800,000 to Litif’s widow and two children, who were 15 and 20 when he died, for the loss of his financial and emotional support.

For Full Story

FBI Denies it Edited Oklahoma Bombing Security Videotapes

Oklahoma City Federal Building

Oklahoma City Federal Building

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com
WASHINGTON — The FBI is denying suggestions that it edited soundless videotapes of the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing, the Associated Press reported.

The denial came in the form of an email to the Associated Press.

“The FBI made no edits or redactions in the processing of these videos,”FBI spokesman Paul  Bresson wrote to the Associated Press. “The tapes are typical security cameras – the view switches camera to camera every few seconds.”

The FBI released more than 24 security camera tapes from buildings near the Oklahoma bombing that showed the chaos after the bombing.

Salt Lake City attorney Jesse Trentadue obtained the tapes through the Freedom of Information Act and complained of them being blank at times shortly before the explosion that killed 168.

“They have been edited,” Trentadue told the Associated Press.

ONE OF THE VIDEOS

FBI Investigating Burbank, Calif. Police Dept.

At least seven lawsuits have been filed by officers against the department alleging racial discrimination. I’m no math major. But that seems like a big number of   lawsuits on one issue.

burbank-police-ca

By Andrew Blankstein
Los Angles Times
LOS ANGLES — FBI officials today confirmed that they are investigating possible civil rights violations alleged by officers at the Burbank Police Department.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller would not comment on specifics of the probe by the agency’s civil rights division or how long the probe would last.

At least seven suits have been filed by officers against the Burbank Police Department, alleging a pattern of racial discrimination and retaliation, as well as unlawful demotions or firings.

Mayor Gary Bric said he was confident that investigations of the Burbank Police Department, including an independent probe by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, would be thorough and complete. He said there would be no limits to investigators.

For Full Story

OTHER STORIES OF INTEREST

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Found Passed Out and Drunk in Stranger’s Bed

us-capitol-police-badgeBy Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com
WASHINGTON — Message to U.S. Capitol police officer Thomas Patrick McMahon: Dude, you’re not in college anymore.

The Washington Post’s Allison Klein reports that an Arlington, Va. woman came home to her apartment early Sunday morning and found McMahon of Reston, Va., drunk and passed out in her bed.

Funny thing was, the two had never met, the Post wrote in a story first reported on WUSA-9 tv. McMahon was charged with unlawful entry and placed on paid administrative leave.

“I don’t know if it looks similar to his apartment in Reston or what,” Arlington police spokeswoman Crystal Nosal told the Post. “Thankfully, nobody was hurt.”