Reporting from San Diego -- Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to disqualify the lead defense attorney for Mexican drug kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix, saying the lawyer once worked on behalf of the Arellano Felix drug cartel to dissuade a witness from cooperating with U.S. law enforcement.
The accusations raise the possibility of the attorney, Jan Ronis, being called as a witness against his own client, who is charged with leading what was once Mexico's most feared organized crime group, prosecutors said in a motion filed in San Diego.
Ronis, a longtime San Diego defense attorney, rejected the accusations, which came amid early court proceedings against Arellano Felix, who had been imprisoned in Mexico since his arrest in 2002 and was extradited to San Diego last month.
Prosecutors are trying to cripple the defense team based on hearsay evidence and the "remote" possibility he would have to take the witness stand, Ronis said.
"The government's argument that they intend to call Mr. Ronis as a witness is nothing more than their attempt to prevent Mr. Arellano Felix from having a particularly able defense at his side," argued Ronis and his co-counsel, Anthony E. Colombo Jr., in a motion filed Wednesday.
Arellano Felix is one of the highest-ranking drug kingpins to ever be prosecuted in the U.S. He is accused in the 2003 indictment of leading an organized crime group, also known as the Tijuana drug cartel, that imported tons of drugs into the U.S. and ruthlessly eliminated all enemies during its reign in the 1980s and 1990s.
The case against Arellano Felix has been described as perhaps the most complex ever filed in San Diego federal court, spanning alleged crimes from 1985 to 2002, including nearly two dozen murders.
Accusations raising ethical issues against a criminal defense attorney in such a high-profile case are unusual.
"They're accusing [Ronis] of something extraordinarily serious. You're accusing a lawyer of doing something unethical, doing something possibly illegal," said Mark Adams, a criminal defense attorney who has represented another defendant in the Arellano Felix case, adding that prosecutors are "going to have to put their money where their mouth is and put up some evidence."
The accusations against Ronis stem from his representation of a cartel member in 1995 whom prosecutors now want to use as a witness against Arellano Felix.
That witness, a drug trafficker who is not identified in court documents, told prosecutors that he believed Ronis had been hired by a top cartel lieutenant who gave strict orders against any cooperation with prosecutors. The witness ended up pleading guilty to drug conspiracy charges and began working with authorities only after Ronis stopped representing him, prosecutors said.
Ronis' alleged cartel role, prosecutors said, could be used to help prove that the drug-trafficking group operated as a criminal enterprise, with a strictly enforced, no-cooperation rule. Ronis could be used as a witness not only by prosecutors, but also by Arellano Felix, prosecutors said.
"Defendant may wish to call Mr. Ronis as a witness in order to refute the government's allegations concerning the [cartel's] utilization of defense attorneys to further the interests and objectives of the enterprise," prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also want Ronis disqualified for conflict-of-interest reasons, since he represented both the witness and Arellano Felix. They said Ronis could attack the witness during a cross-examination with information gleaned during the time he was his client.
Ronis, in a strongly worded, 22-page motion, denied that he would betray any confidential information from his former client and said none of the witnesses have accused him of trying to dissuade anybody from cooperating. The witness he represented, Ronis said, decided on his own not to cooperate.
The defense attorney said the government may be seeking to invent reasons to deny Arellano Felix access to the counsel of his choice. Ronis said that he has represented Arellano Felix for one year, visiting with him and his family in Mexico, and that his 30 years of experience make him uniquely qualified to handle the complex case.
"Given the nature of the case, there are very few qualified attorneys who have the legal skill, knowledge, and ability to represent Mr. Arellano Felix," Ronis said in the motion. Ronis' partner on the case, Colombo, is also facing potential disqualification for conflict-of-interest reasons. He represented a witness who may also be called to testify in the current case, prosecutors said.
The next scheduled court hearing in the case is Monday.