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U.S. taxpayers are still bankrolling El Chapo's legal defense

by Keegan Hamilton
Aug 14 2017, 2:45pm

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán shuffled into a federal courtroom in Brooklyn on Monday, flashed a grin, and waved hello to his beauty-queen wife, who was seated in the front row of the packed public gallery. There wasn’t much for the Sinaloa Cartel kingpin to smile about after that, though, since the brief hearing did not go his way.

Judge Brian Cogan brushed aside a request by Guzmán’s public defenders to allow a new team of private attorneys to officially take over the case. Their entry has so far been delayed by prosecutors, who have refused to say they won’t try to take a portion of the $14 billion that Chapo allegedly earned during his career as a drug lord from his lawyers.

To guard against that, the new team, led by Jeffrey Lichtman — who previously represented ex–mob boss John Gotti Jr. — want the Justice Department to promise not to confiscate their paychecks, a request the judge was unwilling to grant.

Cogan’s ruling leaves Chapo stuck with his court-appointed attorneys — who are paid for by U.S. taxpayers — for at least the foreseeable future, and puts the status of Guzmán’s high-powered legal team in jeopardy.

“I’m not going to pressure the government to create a carve-out for fees,” Cogan said definitively at the outset of the hearing. The new attorneys asked permission to represent Chapo on a “provisional” basis while the money issue is resolved, but Cogan refused to allow that, saying it would be “a bad idea.” Instead, the judge said he wants the new attorneys to take the job with no caveats, so that “once they’re in, they don’t get out so easy.”

Although Lichtman has already met repeatedly with Chapo and signed a retainer agreement, he hasn’t formally registered with the court as the lead attorney on the case. If that were to happen now, Lichtman told reporters after the Monday hearing, the government could move to freeze his bank account on the suspicion that he was being paid with drug money.

“That’s sort of the rub of the problem,” Lichtman said. “They said he can hire private counsel, but they haven’t said that private counsel can keep the fee, and we really need to ensure that before we go forward.”

Michelle Gelernt, one of Chapo’s lawyers from the Federal Defenders, accused the government of hypocrisy. On one hand, Gelernt said after the hearing, prosecutors have argued that Guzmán is rich and taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for lawyers. But at the same time, the feds have also made it impossible for him to hire somebody else.

“The government is making it very difficult for the private lawyers in this case to come on,” Gelernt said. “We hope this doesn’t intimidate them out of coming onto the case.”

Guzmán remained silent throughout the brief hearing, but he turned occasionally to make eye contact with and mouth words to his wife, who was seated next to Lichtman. The 60-year-old drug lord was clean-shaven, and it appeared as though he’d lost weight since his last court date, in June. Chapo has been held in extreme solitary confinement at a maximum-security Manhattan jail since his extradition from Mexico in January, and both Lichtman and Gelernt said they’ve seen “deterioration” in his physical and mental health.

Chapo’s next court date is set for Nov. 6, with the trial expected to begin in April. The case is massive and complicated, and Lichtman said the cost and time commitment would be too great for him to “go out of pocket” to represent Guzmán. Right now, all the work in the case is being done by the Federal Defenders, whose fees are paid for by the public — as is the high cost of security that comes with guarding Chapo and shipping him in a convoy from downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn for court dates.

Chapo is set to receive his first non-legal visit at the jail on Thursday with an undisclosed member of his family, and Lichtman said the hope is that arrangements to pay the private attorneys will be made “soon thereafter.”

Asked in Spanish whether Chapo has any money that wasn’t earned from selling drugs and could be legally used to pay for attorneys, A. Eduardo, another attorney on Lichtman’s team, had an answer: “You’ll have to ask him.”

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