MIAMI — Attorneys for defendants in the Manuel A. Noriega drug trafficking case intensified their attack Friday on acting U.S. Atty. Dexter Lehtinen and his staff, as the judge in the case warned prosecutors against trying to intimidate potential defense witnesses.
U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler, ruling on defense complaints, refused to issue a formal order prohibiting prosecutors from contacting defense witnesses without prior court approval, but he admonished the government against harassment.
The attorney for co-defendant Luis del Cid had accused the U.S. attorney's office of sending Immigration and Naturalization Service agents to "terrify" two Nicaraguan immigrant sisters who appeared as character witnesses for Del Cid at a bond hearing earlier this week.
In their pretrial actions, lawyers for Del Cid and other defendants in the drug trafficking and money laundering case have made it clear they plan to characterize the prosecutors as abusive and guilty of running roughshod over individual rights. In doing so, they hope to counterbalance the widespread public antipathy toward Noriega in the community from which jurors presumably will be drawn.
Samuel I. Burstyn, the attorney for Del Cid, who is accused of aiding Noriega in his drug trafficking activities, said the sisters who testified for his client became so concerned about losing their right to live in the United States that they would not return to court Friday to discuss the incident.
Prosecutors confirmed the contact with the women but insisted it was proper.
As the defense pressed its strategy, the Miami Herald on Friday published an account of an FBI background report describing Lehtinen, 43, as a man with a violent temper who engaged in furniture-smashing arguments with his first wife.
The FBI report is part of an investigation of Lehtinen's suitability for the South Florida U.S. attorney's post, initiated after he was installed in an acting capacity in June, 1988, by then-Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III. His formal nomination has not yet been sent to the Senate for confirmation.
In Washington, Justice Department spokesman David Runkel said Friday that Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh sees no problem with the nomination and expects it to be sent to the Senate soon, although the final decision is up to President Bush.
Lehtinen, a Democrat turned Republican and the husband of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), will not personally try the Noriega case but will serve on the government team with members of his office and a Justice Department prosecutor.
According to the newspaper, the FBI report said that Lehtinen pushed, shook and threw things at a woman who served as his legislative aide in the state Senate, where he served before his federal appointment.
In court Friday, Burstyn accused the U.S. attorney's office of "outrageous conduct" in its contacts with Norma and Eglantina Alvarez, Nicaraguan refugees who have been living in Miami for three years. The Alvarez sisters said Tuesday that they would permit Del Cid, whom they described as an honorable man who had once helped them in Panama, to live in their house until the trial ends if he is released on bail.
Staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.