By Jeffrey Anderson and Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Sept. 24, 2008
New York criminal defense attorney Robert Simels calls himself the “Rolls Royce of attorneys.” The claim is based in large part on his 90 percent acquittal rate and his representation of legendary gangsters such as Henry Hill of Goodfellas fame. But his stature as a legal titan is more complicated than his success in fighting for clients. It is also based on his controversial methods, which have long irked judges, prosecutors, and peers alike.
Simels’ critics, whose concerns have been aired publicly since the 1980s, at times in open court, may not find it surprising that he was recently arrested in New York on federal charges that he plotted to intimidate witnesses on behalf of the head of a violent Guyana-based drug organization.
Yet while Simels has carved a reputation in New York worthy of some twisted episode of Law and Order, he also has established a deep roster of clients with Maryland ties (see article at left), including the Guyanese kingpin with whom Simels was allegedly scheming this summer to “eliminate” witnesses.
The defendant’s name is Shaheed Khan, though he also goes by Roger Kahn and “Boss Man.” In the early 1990s, he was a gun-running, pot-dealing extortionist in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. He fled to Guyana after U.S. authorities charged him in 1993 with being a felon in possession of a firearm. There, Khan heads a vast cocaine-trafficking organization that operates a paramilitary death force called the Phantom Squad, according to separate U.S. charges filed in 2006.
On Sept. 10, the international intrigue surrounding the Khan organization peaked, as Simels and co-counsel Arienne Irving were arrested and charged in federal court. The affidavit for their arrest chillingly portrays the attorneys going too far to protect their clients’ interests, and raises questions about how far they might have gone in the past. Intercepted conversations, many of them recorded via body wire worn by an informant and member of Khan’s Phantom Squad, show Simels and Irving discussing violence as a means of “eliminating” witnesses or “neutralizing” their testimony against Khan.
The intercepted conversations suggest that Simels intended to place potential witnesses in difficult positions. According to the affidavit, which details a series of meetings and discussions over a four-month period, Simels explored “a range of options, from offering them money to murdering their family members.” In one of the conversations, Simels is recorded telling the Phantom Squad member-turned-informant that Khan “wants you to do whatever needs to be done.” Off limits, however, was another witness’ mother. “Don’t kill the mother,” Simels tells the informant during a June meeting at his law office, or “the government will go crazy.”
Federal prosecutors have been wary of Simels, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1970s, long before the Khan case. He handled a drug-conspiracy case in New York City in 1988, for instance, in which two government witnesses recanted their sworn statements and a third was shot. After the shooting, Simels met privately in prison with the man who confessed to shooting the witness and got him to change his story, according to court records. Prosecutors told the judge that Simels had warned the confessor that he should not testify against his “friends” from the street “while his family was out there.” A legal logjam ensued, as Simels figured to become both a witness and the lead attorney in the case; the judge declared a mistrial.
In 2005, according to a New York Law Journal article published on Sept. 11, 2008, New York federal judge Joanna Seybert aired her suspicions that Simels withheld full information from his own client about a plea-bargain offer, possibly so the case would continue and Simels could continue getting paid or tap into some of his client’s drug profits. Just last year, in the Khan case, New York federal judge Dora Irizarry criticized Simels for revealing the names of potential witnesses at a press conference in Guyana. Irizarry declined to sanction Simels but wrote that his “reckless” conduct “degrades the standards of this profession.”
Now, as Simels faces witness-intimidation charges, Baltimore-based prosecutors and defense attorneys similarly express discomfort with him and his methods. One assistant U.S. attorney who has gone up against Simels, speaking on background, puts it like this: “He has done cases [in Maryland] a number of times involving serious, sizable drug dealers. He doesn’t have a good reputation. His clients never cooperate, even when it is in their best interests. I find that unusual, and one could wonder about whether his loyalty is to the client.”
Towson-based criminal defense attorney David Irwin, a former federal prosecutor, says Simels is aggressive and hard charging. But the veteran defender cautions that attorneys must be careful to balance such zealousness against ethics–and the law. “I tell my young associates,” Irwin says, “make sure when you are talking to a witness, that if someone were taping the conversation, you wouldn’t mind hearing it come out in court or in the media.”
Regarding the taped conversations that led to Simels being charged with witness intimidation, Irwin says, “It certainly sounds as if Simels is at least stomping on the line, if not stepping over it.”
The drug-dealing charges against Khan don’t indicate that his cocaine came to Maryland. However, in 2004, a large haul of Guyanese coke totaling more than 150 kilograms was seized coming from Georgia to Baltimore.
Simels’ attorney in the witness-intimidation case, Gerald Shargel, has been quoted in news coverage calling the government’s allegations against Simels false. “Bob Simels is well-known as a tenacious, effective, and highly capable defense lawyer, and he was doing his work,” Shargel said, adding that “it’s easy for prosecutors to make an accusation, but it’s quite another thing for them to prove it.”