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COLUMN ONE : A Defector to the War on Drugs : A Los Angeles lawyer earned millions of dollars defending narcotics dealers. Then he engineered the arrests of his clients, breaking a commandment basic to the defense.

September 07, 1991|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawyer Ron Minkin, once the defender of men who shipped tons of marijuana into this country from such places as Thailand and Colombia, is a most unlikely volunteer in the war on drugs.

For 15 years, Minkin smoked his clients' dope, shared their lavish meals, became godfather to their children. And as his core clientele of hippie dealers moved from small-time street deals on the Sunset Strip and became international drug barons, they paid him millions to keep them out of prison.

Then it unraveled, and it was Minkin who pulled the thread. Working with the government, he reeled in a daisy chain of clients to the close embrace of informant status. He earned the contempt of fellow lawyers, the wary cooperation of the feds and the gratitude of some former clients, who are as thankful to him for cutting them deals as they once were when he got them off drug charges.

Back in his drug-lawyer days, with his finely tailored suits and carefully tended shoulder-length hair, Minkin was a regular at the criminal courts in Los Angeles. But he says that he grew to detest the law and the dealers whose wares were destroying society.

Finally, Minkin broke a commandment so basic to the defense that it is unspoken. With a fervor that even gave prosecutors pause, he set out to bring about the arrests of clients who had come to him for years.

Once they were arrested, Minkin pressured them to become informants. They in turn fingered more clients. He did it all with the blessing and the help of federal law enforcement in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"You can do almost anything when you think you're morally right," Minkin says from the couch of his Woodland Hills condominium. He is shirtless, and his sparse gray hair is clipped close to his scalp, strikingly different from the long locks that he wore in his defense-lawyer heyday. His law practice is in ruins, but he says that bringing down his former clients gave him a satisfaction that he never got when he used to fight to keep them out of jail.

In court, however, questions are being raised about those investigations and how the Justice Department, in its pursuit of drug dealers, embraced Minkin's zealous conversion. His actions shocked defense lawyers, who call him a hypocrite, a walking violation of the 6th Amendment right to counsel, a defense lawyer from hell. Old friends doubt that he acted out of outrage at the havoc wreaked by drugs. "When he gives back all the money," a former associate said, "then I'll believe it's a moral thing."

One lawyer, Marcus Topel, is trying to persuade a judge to throw out the drug indictment of one of Minkin's former clients, Steven Marshank, because Minkin allegedly played Marshank false.

As Topel sees it, this slices to the core of the justice system. If lawyers turn against their clients, the adversarial keystone of the courts will be pulled loose. Prosecutors and defense lawyers would be one and the same. "Why bother having attorneys at all? Why not just haul them in and beat confessions out of them?" Topel says sarcastically.

But Minkin contends that dealers are not worthy of protection. They have "done everything they could, to their own profit, to destroy our society and they can't be touched because they hide in the Constitution." And their attorneys, in whose ranks he once starred, are "greedy little pigs eating from the trough of human misery." If they all did what he did, the drug crisis would be history.

Federal authorities who knew Minkin in his lawyering days saw him as less a counselor than a consigliere, and some government agents remain suspicious of him. One even tried to build a criminal case against him for past doings, even as he helped authorities. But he has his defenders.

" 'Morals' and 'Ron Minkin' are hard to put in the same sentence," an FBI agent said. "But I do believe Ron is sincere in what he says, for whatever reason. . . . I never caught him in a blatant lie, or even in fabrication. Now, maybe a little embellishment."

Some of Minkin's longtime clients, who have followed him to the other side of the table, have testified in three major drug trials, provided information for grand jury investigations, and were debriefed about scores of dealers who were part of what Minkin believes is a major drug-dealing organization he later dubbed "the Matrix."

There is debate over how important that information was. But whatever its value, there was a lot of it. Minkin clients named dozens of dealers and laid out their roles in the drug trade. The man suspected in dealing a 100-ton load of hashish that was recently seized in the Pacific Ocean near Midway Island is among the names given by Minkin clients.

However, with U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel poised to issue a ruling in San Francisco that could eviscerate the case against Marshank, the self-styled anti-drug warrior may be on the verge of his greatest defeat.

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