Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán is perhaps the world’s most famous kingpin, but he’s currently facing life in prison in the U.S. for a variety of drug, conspiracy, and money laundering charges. In other words, he could really use a good lawyer.
After months of being represented by public defenders, Chapo has finally moved to hire an attorney with a track record of securing freedom for high-profile clients. VICE News has confirmed that Guzmán will be represented by Jeffrey Lichtman, a veteran New York criminal defense lawyer who is most famous for getting mafia boss John Gotti off the hook.
VICE News reported Monday that Chapo’s court-appointed attorneys, Michelle Gelernt and Michael K. Schneider, gave notice that Guzmán “executed retainer agreements with private counsel.” The new attorney does not formally represent him yet because there are concerns that the Department of Justice will seek “forfeiture of legal fees,” meaning the government could confiscate any money used by Chapo to pay for his legal defense.
Lichtman, a New Jersey native and graduate of Duke University School of Law, told VICE News he is the unnamed private counsel that Guzmán now has on retainer, and confirmed that the arrangement is “predicated on us trying to resolve the fee situation.”
With Lichtman’s help, Gotti — the former head of the Gambino crime family — was acquitted in 2005 on a racketeering charge and ended up with a hung jury on several other counts, an improbable outcome that cemented Gotti’s reputation as “The Teflon Don” because no charges would stick against him. Lichtman has also represented the rapper The Game and the madam in the Eliot Spitzer case, among others.
“The government’s position is that while it insists in open court that Mr. Guzman is not entitled to appointed counsel at public expense, it nonetheless refuses to assure us that it won’t try to forfeit legal fees,” Lichtman said. “So months of trial preparation have been wasted trying to resolve this issue — as Mr. Guzman suffers the most difficult prison conditions I or any defense lawyer have ever encountered.”
Guzmán is due back in federal court in Brooklyn next Monday, and Gelernt and Schneider have asked Judge Brian Cogan to “set a deadline for the government to notify the defendant whether it will agree not to seek to forfeit legal fees.” A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York declined to comment when asked Monday whether prosecutors intend to go after Chapo’s legal defense fund.
The Department of Justice is already seeking $14 billion worth of asset forfeiture from Chapo, alleging that he earned at least that much from importing cocaine to the United States. With that hanging over the case, any money that Guzmán uses to pay Lichtman could potentially be seized by the government. Lichtman could also theoretically face money laundering charges for taking Chapo’s cash, since all of the drug lord’s gains are allegedly ill-gotten.
Guzmán’s prolific work in the drug business purportedly made him a billionaire, but he has insisted since his extradition from Mexico in January that he can’t afford a private lawyer. Prosecutors have called for “a strenuous inquiry” into his finances “to ensure that American taxpayers are not needlessly paying” for his legal defense.
Chapo, who is currently being held in extreme lockdown at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, has reportedly met with at least 16 private attorneys in recent months. The New York Daily News reports that Chapo has also hired A. Eduardo Balarezo and William Purpura, who represented Mexican kingpin and former Chapo ally Alfredo Beltran Leyva, along with Marc Fernich, another member of Gotti’s defense team.
Defending the accused drug lord will be a massive undertaking. His case is extremely complex with mountains of evidence, and the Department of Justice will put its full weight behind the prosecution. The trial is set to begin next April, and Lichtman — along with any other lawyer who takes the job — will want a guarantee before then that they will get paid.
Lichtman’s experience defending Gotti gives him unique preparation for working with Chapo. In a 2005 interview with the New York Times after Gotti was acquitted, Lichtman discussed how having a client with name recognition presents unique challenges.
“When it’s a Gotti case, the name alone is enough to convict you,” Lichtman said. “I was working like three people because I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Where else would I get an opportunity on a stage like this? It’s not like I think Gotti is this innocent little guy; I’m not a fool. But the government was going after him like he’s their Moby-Dick.”
CORRECTION Aug. 8, 11:52 a.m.: John Gotti was a member of the Gambino crime family, not the Bonanno crime family as originally reported in this story.