NY attorney sentenced in drug-smuggling case
NEW YORK — A defense attorney with a high-profile client list was sentenced to 14 years in prison on Friday for plotting with a Guyanese businessman to use bribes and threats to silence witnesses in the businessman's drug-trafficking case.
Robert Simels, who was convicted earlier this year on multiple witness-tampering charges, apologized to his family and asked for mercy at the sentencing in federal court in Brooklyn. His lawyer had sought for a sentence of about three years, while the government wanted a minimum of 30.
"I actually loved the law," Simels said. "I have no one to blame but myself."
Said defense attorney Gerald Shargel: "Mr. Simels today is a broken man."
U.S. District Judge John Gleeson called Simels "a very good lawyer." But he labeled his crimes "egregious," and criticized him for downplaying his conduct as "abysmal failure of judgment" in a letter to the court.
"It was more than that," the judge said. "You're not here for exercising bad judgment."
Prosecutor Morris Fodeman called the case "an affront to everything we do in this courthouse."
Simels, 62, had been a fixture in the New York legal community for more than three decades. The former state prosecutor's clients included Henry Hill, whose exploits were the basis of the 1990 Martin Scorsese mob film "Goodfellas," and Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, a legendary gang leader accused of funneling drug money into rap music label Murder Inc.
In 2006, Simels was hired by Shaheed "Roger" Khan. Before his arrest and extradition to Brooklyn to face federal drug charges, Khan was one of the richest people in the South American country of Guyana, controlling businesses such as housing developments, discos and carpet cleaning.
But U.S. authorities alleged that Khan's wealth also came from smuggling large amounts of cocaine into the United States under the protection of the Phantom Squad — a paramilitary group that has been accused in as many as 200 killings in Guyana.
Last year, as Kahn's case was nearing trial, Simels was approached by a Drug Enforcement Administration cooperator wearing a hidden recording device who told him he was a former Phantom Squad member.
In one taped conversation, the cooperator suggested a witness "might suddenly get amnesia" if paid enough money.
"That's a terrible thing, but if it happens, it happens," Simels responded. Later in the same meeting, the lawyer remarked: "Obviously, any witness you can eliminate is a good thing."
In another discussion about locating relatives of a witness, Simels was recorded telling the cooperator that Khan had instructed, "Don't kill the mother." Khan "thinks that if the mother gets killed that ... the government will go crazy, and he's probably right."
Simels, taking the witness stand in his own defense, had testified he merely meant he wanted enough ammunition to discredit the witnesses in front of a jury. "It's part of the vernacular of being a lawyer," Simels said. He described putting in long hours and using private investigators to dig up dirt on drug dealers turned government witnesses.
Earlier this year, Khan pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking, weapons charges and witness tampering in a plea deal expected to result in a 15-year sentence.
Simels was allowed to remain free on bail until he surrenders to prison Jan. 8.
By TOM HAYS (AP)
December 04 2009