Drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, a purported billionaire, has maintained since his extradition from Mexico in January that he can’t afford to hire his own lawyers, but it appears the Sinaloa Cartel leader is finally ready to part ways with his public defenders.
Court documents filed Monday — a week ahead of Guzmán’s next court date in Brooklyn — state that he has “executed retainer agreements with private counsel.” The new attorneys, however, are reluctant to officially take over the case until the government promises not to seek “forfeiture of legal fees,” or confiscate the cash Chapo would use to pay his bills.
The documents, filed by Chapo’s current attorneys Michelle Gelernt and Michael K. Schneider from the Federal Defenders of New York, ask the court to set a deadline for the government to declare whether they intend to go after his legal defense fund. The Department of Justice is already seeking $14 billion worth of forfeiture from Chapo, which is the purported value of the 250 tons of cocaine he’s accused of importing to the United States.
The filing (viewable in full below) does not identify the new attorneys, but says they plan to file “provisional notices of appearance” while the money issue gets sorted out. Gelernt and Schneider declined to comment. John Marzulli, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, where Chapo is under indictment, declined to say whether prosecutors intend seek forfeiture of legal fees.
The front-runner to represent Chapo, according to a Wall Street Journal report last month, is Jeffrey Lichtman, a New York criminal defense attorney who secured an acquittal for mafia boss John Gotti. Given the complexity of the case, it’s possible that Guzmán could hire multiple private attorneys with expertise in various areas.
Representing Chapo is no small task: His case is massive and complex. The government has a trove of evidence against the kingpin, and the release of that information through the pretrial “discovery” process is still ongoing, with his lawyers and federal prosecutors sparring over the pace of the disclosures and the tight restrictions that have been applied to Chapo and his defense team as a security precaution. The meetings occur a small room with a Plexiglas wall and metal dividers to keep Guzmán physically separated from his legal team.
After Chapo arrived in the United States and asked for a court-appointed lawyer, prosecutors called for “a strenuous inquiry” into his finances “to ensure that American taxpayers are not needlessly paying for the representation of Guzman, the billionaire leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization.”
Guzmán has been represented by several different attorneys in Mexico over the years, but until recently he’s been barred from meeting with anyone other than his public defenders. The court filing Monday said “certain members of Mr. Guzman’s family” were recently approved for “non-legal visits,” which were in the process of being scheduled.
For now, the identify of Chapo’s new attorneys remains a mystery, but whoever takes the ultra-high profile gig will certainly want a guarantee that they can get paid. They’ll also have big shoes to fill — the Federal Defenders have been diligently battling on Chapo’s behalf, most recently arguing that the charges against him should be dismissed because his extradition was improper and based on testimony by unreliable witnesses.