Benjamin Arellano Felix, the former leader of one of Mexico's most… (PGR/AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from San Diego — A federal judge on Monday disqualified the lead attorney for Mexican drug kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix, ruling that his participation in the high-profile case was marred by potential conflicts of interests that could force him to take the witness stand.
Federal prosecutors were attempting to get the attorney, Jan Ronis, kicked off the case in part because he allegedly worked on behalf of the Arellano Felix drug cartel to dissuade a witness from cooperating with U.S. law enforcement.
Judge Larry A. Burns said Ronis' alleged cartel role, while unproven, was sufficient to create an appearance of a conflict of interest, and he also sided with prosecutors who said Ronis' past representation of a potential witness in the current case posed a conflict.
The legal sparring came in the early stages of court proceedings against the drug kingpin who is charged with leading the cartel during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, when it moved tons of drugs into the U.S. and ruthlessly eliminated rivals as it became Mexico's most feared organized crime group.
Burns, who has known Ronis for 30 years and tried cases against him when he was a federal prosecutor, described the lawyer as a person of integrity who has always been truthful with him. But Burns said the allegations were an "elephant in the room" that could not be ignored and threatened to turn Ronis' complicated role into a sideshow that could overwhelm the case.
"It just looks bad," Burns said, adding that Ronis would probably want to contest the allegations, raising the awkward scenario of him testifying in the case. "It puts Mr. Ronis in a terrible position. If I was in that position, I would want to defend my reputation."
The allegations 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, told prosecutors that he thought Ronis had been hired by a top cartel lieutenant who issued orders forbidding cooperating with prosecutors. The witness ultimately pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges and worked with authorities, but only after Ronis stopped representing him, prosecutors said.
Assistant U.S. Atty. James Melendres said the trafficker and cartel lieutenant, neither of whom was named in court documents, could be called as witnesses to implicate Ronis in the racketeering conspiracy. Prosecutors have given no indication that Ronis will face criminal charges and declined further comment.
Ronis, after the hearing, denied the accusations, saying that he had never told the witness that he couldn't cooperate and had no contact with the cartel lieutenant who allegedly hired him. "There's no allegation that I ever talked to him or even knew him," Ronis said.
Arellano Felix, for his part, wanted Ronis by his side during the case that has been described as the most complex ever filed in San Diego federal court. He waived any potential conflict even after Burns told him that it might not be in his interest. When Burns replaced Ronis with another defense attorney, Douglas Brown, Burns assured Arellano Felix that "he's a good lawyer. He's very experienced."
Security remained tight at the downtown San Diego courthouse; observers had to go through two metal screeners to enter the courtroom. Arellano Felix, who is implicated in more than a dozen murders, entered wearing handcuffs, and the federal marshals flanking him objected when Burns asked that they be removed.
But Burns insisted, telling Arellano Felix, "I'm going to treat you like a gentleman, but I expect you to act like a gentleman." Arellano Felix nodded and the marshals removed the shackles.