NY lawyer guilty of witness tampering in drug case
NEW YORK — A high-profile criminal defense attorney was convicted Thursday of plotting with a South American businessman to use bribes and violence to silence witnesses in the client’s drug-trafficking case.
A federal jury in Brooklyn deliberated nearly a week before finding Robert Simels guilty of multiple witness-tampering charges. An associate in Simels’ firm also was convicted.
Simels, 62, leaned forward and stared at the jury as the verdict was read, but showed no other reaction. Afterward, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson ruled that, despite his “moral outrage as a judge” and the objections of prosecutors, the defendant could remain free on bail and under house arrest.
The jurors had heard secretly recorded conversations in which Simels muses about needing to “eliminate” or “neutralize” key government witnesses — terms he said were not meant literally. The judge said the evidence showed that if the plot hatched as part of a sting was real, “people easily could have been murdered, and Simels knew it.”
Prosecutors said Simels faces a maximum of about 15 years in prison at sentencing on Nov. 20. His attorney, Gerald Shargel, said he would appeal the verdict.
“I’m deeply saddened for Bob and his family,” Shargel said. “Obviously, he’s distressed.”
Simels has been a fixture in New York courthouses. His 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. Simels also represented Ken O’Brien and Mark Gastineau, two former New York Jets who had brushes with the law.
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 Guyana, controlling businesses that ranged from housing developments to discos to 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 the Phantom Squad — a paramilitary group that has been accused in as many as 200 killings in Guyana.
Taking the witness stand in his own defense, Simels described putting in long hours and using private investigators to dig up dirt on drug dealers-turned-government witnesses. Last year, as the Kahn case was nearing trial, Simels was approached by a Drug Enforcement Administration cooperator wearing a wire 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 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 when asked about his use of the word “killed.”
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.