MIAMI — Facing the possibility of life behind bars, a former federal prosecutor pleaded guilty to reduced charges here Monday and promised to cooperate in the government's case against other lawyers who have represented bosses of the Cali cocaine cartel.
Donald Ferguson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami during the 1970s, admitted that he had broken the law by conspiring to obstruct justice and laundering drug money while working for Colombian cocaine traffickers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela.
As a result of his plea, Ferguson, 48, could be sentenced to as little as two years.
Ferguson was one of six lawyers, including a former high-ranking Justice Department official in Washington, indicted June 5 on narcotics and racketeering charges stemming from a wide-ranging federal investigation called Operation Cornerstone.
Agents working that investigation also played a role in the arrest in Cali four days later of Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, who with his brother has headed a drug-smuggling enterprise believed responsible for supplying 80% of the cocaine that comes into the United States.
The indictments of the lawyers, including Michael Abbell, the former head of the U.S. Justice Department's office of international affairs, rocked some members of the criminal defense bar, who accused the government of attempting to intimidate them from vigorously representing their clients.
Roy Black, who represents Abbell, said that the indictments sent a signal "that lawyers could now be charged with the crimes of their clients." After leaving his government post, Abbell represented Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela.
But Neal Sonnett, Ferguson's attorney, disagreed with Black's assessment. "Do I think the government sat back and said: 'Let's indict some lawyers to send a message'? No. But can that be an unintended consequence? Sure."
Appearing before U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler, Ferguson in a barely audible voice admitted that he had violated the money-laundering statute by delivering $75,000 in drug cash from cartel chiefs to the wife of a jailed defendant. The money was to be used as bond, Sonnett said.
In response to the second count, Ferguson told Hoeveler that he had helped secure false statements from drug defendants when he notarized affidavits in Spanish that he did not understand. He said that he did not realize he was breaking the law when he signed the papers but learned later that he had done so.
Sonnett said that Ferguson entered the guilty pleas against his advice.
"I continue to have a different view of evidence from the government's and I was prepared to defend him," said Sonnett, who is both a former federal prosecutor and a former president of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But he has a wife and a 10-year-old son and would have faced life in prison."
In papers unsealed since the indictments were announced, federal prosecutors allege that the cartel bosses oversaw a sophisticated network of lawyers and mid-level managers to run an organization that has become dominant in the worldwide drug trade.
From Cali, Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela and his younger brother, who is still on the run, directed payment of hush money to the families of those arrested, approved false affidavits to deceive prosecutors and, when all else failed, authorized death threats, the prosecution papers say.
The government charged that the lawyers, including Abbell, Ferguson and Joel Rosenthal, crossed well over the line of advocacy and became virtual criminal co-conspirators with their clients by manufacturing evidence, obstructing prosecutors and paying for silence while collecting handsome fees themselves.
"This is not a case of lawyers falling into ethical gray areas," said U.S. Atty. Kendall Coffey of Miami. "It would be criminal if a truck driver had done these things."
Along with Ferguson, Rosenthal and fellow Miami lawyers Robert Moore and Francisco Laguna have entered guilty pleas, and are awaiting sentencing.
Abbell and William Moran have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.