Team Player: Lawyer in Guyanese coke case accused of witness intimidation

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.”

Return Flight: Fugitive Shawn Green arrested

By Jeffrey Anderson and Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 24, 2008

After fleeing from a federal indictment in early 2007 (“Flight Connections,” March 12), Shawn Michael Green was arrested Dec. 14 in Pennsylvania and taken to Maryland to face drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges.

Aside from those charges, court records in other proceedings point to connections with an allegedly violent cocaine conspiracy under indictment in Pennsylvania involving associates of Green, who has hired New York criminal defense titan Robert Simels as his lawyer.

First appearances in federal court in Baltimore on Dec. 19 set a high-profile tone for Green’s case, in part because Simels is under indictment in New York on charges of witness intimidation (“Team Player,” Sept. 24.)

Between the Pennsylvania and Maryland cases, Green and his associates, who have alleged drug ties to Mexico and property interests all along the Eastern Seaboard, are now under the federal looking glass.

“It is a big country,” Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said in a statement, regarding Green’s arrest. “But most fugitives on federal felony warrants are caught before long. We look forward to Shawn Green having his day in court.”

According to federal court documents, Green was a “known narcotics trafficker” in February 2006 when federal agents observed him in a Prince George’s County parking lot with two men currently indicted in federal court in Philadelphia: Maurice Phillips and Anthony Ballard, leaders of the alleged Phillips Cocaine Organization (PCO). After the meeting, in which Phillips retrieved a black duffel bag from Green’s car, agents stopped Ballard and seized more than $900,000 cash.

Phillips was indicted in 2007 on drug-trafficking, money-laundering, and murder-for-hire charges. Ballard, a 38-year-old Baltimore man with Eastern Shore ties, has agreed to plead guilty to drug-conspiracy charges in the PCO case, and in October in Maryland he pleaded guilty to drug-distribution charges and participation in a Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration identity-theft scam.

Green’s precise role in the PCO is unclear, and he has not been indicted in that case, but according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright Jr., in Philadelphia, “You can match the overt acts of the Phillips indictment” with the allegations against Green in Maryland “and draw your own conclusions.” In all, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland says it has seized or forfeited five properties belonging to Green, Ballard, or Phillips, who owns real estate from New Jersey to North Carolina. Another Baltimore man charged in the PCO case, Sherman Kemp, featured in the Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, pleaded guilty in Maryland in July to drug conspiracy and was sentenced to 180 months in prison.

In addition to his Pennsylvania ties, Green is an associate of politically connected businessman Noel Liverpool (“All Around Player,” Oct. 8.) Green, whose Reservoir Hill house was forfeited this spring, and Liverpool, a Morgan State University two-sport star in the 1980s, were in business together in the 1990s in a clothing store, Total Male II. Liverpool has never been the subject of drug-related charges.

While Green, age 42, was on the lam, his co-conspirator and mother, Yolanda Crawley, was convicted and sentenced for mortgage fraud and drug-money laundering. Lawyer Rachel Donegan and mortgage broker David Lincoln also pleaded guilty in the fraud scheme, which involved luxury homes in Maryland, Georgia, and Florida. Green’s role in this conspiracy is part of his current indictment.

The accusations against Green “demonstrate how criminal drug dealers operate in Baltimore,” according to Rosenstein. “People who do business with drug dealers often know where the money comes from,” he says. “Drug-enforcement efforts can be successful only if we follow the money.”

On Dec. 19, Simels arrived in Baltimore to enter his appearance on behalf of Green, who already had been brought before U.S. District Court judge James Bredar on Monday, Dec. 15, the day after his arrest. Perhaps 15 to 20 family members and friends of Green packed the courtroom, and several conferred at length with Simels before the hearing.

Though Simels did not contest prosecutor Kwame Manley’s request that Green be detained pending trial, he cautioned against holding him at the Supermax facility in downtown Baltimore, where he is currently detained. “I’m concerned about the potential cooperators also housed there that he may be unfortunately exposed to,” Simels said. Bredar left the issue to be worked out between counsel and set scheduling on motions leading up to a trial date that has yet to be set.

Walter Ingram pleads guilty while crying foul in federal heroin case in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 4, 2014

In 2010, when Walter Louis Ingram was 59 years old, he was charged in a Baltimore-based heroin conspiracy, three years after his release from federal prison for a 1992 cocaine-conspiracy conviction. Since the new charges were filed, the Baltimore gangster – famous in the 1980s and early 1990s for beating murder raps and other serious charges here and in New York City – has been fighting them from his jail cell.

His efforts, which have spanned more than three years and as many defense attorneys, came to an end Oct. 2, when he pleaded guilty before U.S. District judge J. Frederick Motz and received a six-year prison sentence – less than expected in CP‘s prior coverage of the case.

Given the long time it’s taken the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office to convince Ingram to admit his guilt, it’s worth noting that Ingram’s plea agreement gives him credit for “apparent prompt recognition and affirmative acceptance of personal responsibility for his criminal conduct,” the document states, and for his “timely notification of his intention to plead guilty.”

Three years is a long time for the feds to put a case to bed, and Ingram’s posture during the lengthy proceedings has been, to put it kindly, intransigent. Given this background, the agreement’s liberal use of the terms “prompt recognition” and “timely notification” seem almost sarcastic. The plea agreement also includes a waiver of appeal rights for both Ingram and the government should the sentence actually imposed be 72 months – which is precisely what Motz gave him.

Even in pleading guilty, though, Ingram sounds like a fighter. City Paper today received a jail letter from him, which states that “after careful thought and consideration, I accepted the government’s recent plea offer very reluctantly,” noting that, in his view, the case against him “had begun to reveal a [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] cover-up of illegal cell phone tracking and a systematic disregard for the Federal Rules of [Criminal] Procedure, Rule 41,” which dictates conduct involving searches and seizures.

Ingram writes that, based on “the very limited disclosure of discovery material in my case,” he believes that electronic-surveillance orders used in his and other federal probes in Maryland have been unlawfully obtained from state judges, rather than federal judges, based on applications by federal agents “not acting with and under the direction of a state law-enforcement officer” – a no-no, he asserts, under his reading of Maryland and federal laws.

“This erroneous practice,” Ingram continues, “has been systematically perpetuated for several years under seal” – meaning, sealed from public view under judges’ orders – and “there are many other cases involving the same illegally used procedure.” He adds that “this type of conduct undermines the integrity of the federal judicial process” because “federal agents are using illegally obtained information for federal prosecutions and covering up how the information was obtained.”

The pattern of such alleged abuse, Ingram claims, continues in the case of Richard Anthony “Richie Rich” Wilford, who was a co-defendant of Ingram’s in the 1992 conspiracy case and is also currently being prosecuted in a federal drug conspiracy – though Wilford’s case so far remains unresolved.

When Ingram gets out of prison this time, he’ll be pushing 70 – maybe a good age to retire from the streets and instead go to work for a criminal-defense firm. After all, his storied past – including his legendary association with Kenneth Antonio Jackson, the politically connected strip-club owner, longshoreman, and filmmaker who was Ingram’s co-defendant in a famous 1991 New York murder acquittal orchestrated by super-lawyer Robert Simels, who’s currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for witness intimidation – is now ancient history.

New York Boys: A Queens Gangster and His Attorney Visit Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 4, 2003

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Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, notorious for his ruthless endeavors in the 1980s as leader of a $10-million-a-year drug organization that fueled a crack epidemic in public-housing high rises in Jamaica, Queens, came to Baltimore federal court June 2 for sentencing on firearms charges. McGriff, an ex-con, was arrested in Miami on Dec. 28 for possessing firearms, in violation of federal law, during repeated visits to a Glen Burnie shooting range.

McGriff (pictured, from Wikipedia) is a movie producer now, with a new straight-to-DVD gangster movie out, Crime Partners, based on a Donald Goines novel and featuring Hollywood stars Snoop Dogg and Ice-T. And he was recently revealed as the behind-the-scenes money and muscle of Grammy Award-winning hip-hop record label Murder Inc.

U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Motz, who is presiding over McGriff’s Baltimore gun case, has seen his share of high-profile defendants over the decades, but a Big Apple movie-and-music mogul in a Baltimore courtroom is a very rare bird.

Watching McGriff’s back in court was Manhattan lawyer Robert Simels, a veteran of nearly a quarter-century of famed defendants–from Italian mobsters and drug lords from the ‘hood, to international bankers and Russian gasoline bootleggers. Among his clients have been a few well-known Baltimoreans with New York connections. Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson, the politically connected former lieutenant of Melvin “Little Melvin” Williams‘ heroin hierarchy of the 1980s, has used Simels to fight everything from tax-evasion charges to city liquor-board infractions. Simels represented William “Little Will” Franklin–a drug trafficker who in 1987 was indicted with Phillip A. “Phil Boy” Murray, owner of O’Dell’s nightclub on North Avenue, on drug charges–when he faced new drug-dealing charges in the late ’90s. Antonio “Big Black” Howell, former head of the East Baltimore gang the Nickel Boys, also turned to Simels when the feds closed in on his outfit.

McGriff, on the other hand, is a New Yorker with Baltimore connections–and the little that is publicly known about those connections suggests that Simels is going to have his hands full defending McGriff.

McGriff–who is known to use two other names, “Ricky Coleman” and “Lee Tuten”–pleaded guilty in April to gun charges stemming from his repeated use of firearms at Select-Fire shooting range next to the Glen Burnie Mall off of Ritchie Highway between January 1999 and June 2001.

Federal convicts like McGriff, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term after his exploits in the Queens, N.Y., high rises, aren’t legally allowed to possess firearms or ammunition, yet a certificate from Select-Fire contained in court files reflects that, in August 2000, McGriff completed a “tactical handgun training course” with a “L.E. [law enforcement] Firearms Instructor” whose signature is illegible. The New York federal prosecutor, Tracy Lee Dalton, who was deputized in Baltimore to handle the case after McGriff’s December arrest in Miami, also asserts in a May 28 sentencing memorandum that “on a number of occasions the defendant utilized machine guns” at Select-Fire.

A recent City Paper visit to Select-Fire elicited a shocked reaction from owner Wayne Nowicki. “Where did you get this?” he asked when presented with a copy of McGriff’s training certificate from his establishment. When told it was from the federal courthouse, he exclaimed, “Got my balls up my asshole,” and asked the reporter to leave his shop.

Select-Fire is one of two Baltimore-area locations where prosecutor Dayton places McGriff. The other is a residence in the Red Run Apartments complex in Owings Mills, where two men from New York were gunned down in the parking lot on Aug. 20, 2001. Inside the apartment investigators found McGriff’s fingerprints as well as the Select-Fire certificate, “numerous items related to [Crime Partners],” a stolen handgun, about $30,000 in cash, and “a large quantity” of cocaine and heroin.

The official line on the Red Run double murder, which remains unsolved, is simply that it appears to be drug-related. Four months earlier, one of the Red Run victims, Karon Russell Clarrett, had been nabbed on Interstate 95 in Robeson County, N.C., with 2.3 kilograms of cocaine.

Federal authorities in New York have linked McGriff to violence in recent years, though he hasn’t been charged with any related crimes. “In one instance, McGriff directed co-conspirators to kill a drug associate who, agents believe, McGriff suspected of cooperating with the government,” according to an Internal Revenue Service affidavit, quoted in the May 17 Sun, filed May 12 in a New York federal forfeiture suit filed against McGriff’s assets. “In another instance, McGriff was involved with the shooting of another rap artist named 50 Cent.” The performer in question, 50 Cent, has been at the vortex of hip-hop-world violence: He’s been shot on two occasions and has made a name in part on his resulting street credibility.

At McGriff’s June 2 hearing, Judge Motz handed him a 37-month sentence, to be served consecutively with whatever term he receives for another gun charge pending in New York.

“There is absolutely no excuse for you to be anywhere near a firearm,” Motz admonished McGriff, concluding that the only reason for the defendant’s gunplay at Select-Fire was “to keep your skills up, and that says it all. Felons have no reason to keep their [gun] skills up.”

Before the hearing, Simels bantered with the press.

“It shouldn’t even be in violation of federal laws [for a felon] to be at a firing range,” he insisted. When he went before Motz, however, Simels changed his tune, pleading with the judge for a lighter sentence, acknowledging, “It was wrong for [McGriff] to go.”

“This is a lot of attention for a little case,” Simels remarked to the courthouse press corps. But the widespread attention to McGriff’s misdeeds in Baltimore is due to his newly publicized stature as a player in the rap world.

Since last December, when the New York Daily News first reported that a U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn was zeroing in on McGriff and Crime Partners, McGriff’s role in Murder, Inc. has taken shape in the press in drips and drabs. The probe, begun in 2000, is prying into alleged financial ties between the drug world and the rap industry.

The federal forfeiture suit filed on May 12 in New York against McGriff’s movie company, Picture Perfect, alleges that since 1999 McGriff has been laundering drug money, including profits from his Baltimore operations, through the Crime Partners project. Murder Inc. promoted the movie while Def Jam Records produced the film’s soundtrack, according to the suit.

Other entertainment-industry players crop up in the complaint, including Raven Knite Productions of Los Angeles, which is said in the suit to be Crime Partners’ agent. The company’s roots are in producing 1990s music videos, including ones for Marion “Suge” Knight’s Death Row Records. It currently gets decent work on the Hollywood periphery. In 2001, for instance, Raven Knite snagged a production credit for Queens-based Transcontinental Records’ jump into the movie world, Long Shot, a movie that AllPop.com describes as “a teen comedy with cameos from Britney Spears, Lance from *NSync, KC [of the Sunshine Band], and Kenny Rogers.”

“In or about 2001,” the IRS forfeiture suit alleges, a package to Raven Knite was intercepted by authorities after it had caught the attention of drug-sniffing dogs. The package was from one of Crime Partners’ co-producers, Jon Ragin of New York, a man with a criminal history in the drug business who currently is facing credit-card fraud charges in connection with the Murder Inc. investigation. Inside was $5,000 in cash, wrapped in scented baby wipes–a tactic, the complaint alleges, that is frequently used by narcotics traffickers “to disguise the tell-tale scent of their narcotics proceeds.”

Attempts to reach Raven Knite for comment were unsuccessful. The company’s listed Los Angeles telephone number has been disconnected.

With the federal investigation of McGriff and Murder Inc. heading into courtrooms, Simels is handling spin control as the feds’ version of events seeps out of the court files and into press coverage. Simels has said repeatedly that while McGriff has an ugly past in the drug business, his present moneymaking endeavors in the entertainment industry are entirely legitimate.

And profitable, by all appearances. After McGriff’s Dec. 28 arrest in Miami on the Baltimore gun charges, a magistrate judge concluded that McGriff should be kept in detention because he presented a flight risk, in part because his billfold is fat. In addition to the small amounts of ecstasy and heroin found in McGriff’s wallet when he was arrested in a Miami hotel, the judge proclaimed that McGriff “has extensive financial resources.” Presumably, then, he can afford Simels’ pricey legal services–unlike some of Simels’ past clients, like Good Fellas mobster Henry Hill and New York Jets football player Ken O’Brien, both of whom Simels sued for failure to pay their bills.

New York Attorney Robert Simels, Serving a 14-Year Prison Sentence, Co-Owns Baltimore Condo with Kenny “Bird” Jackson’s Mother

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Feb. 22, 2010

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Robert Simels, the New York criminal-defense lawyer who for decades represented some of Baltimore’s most notorious drug-world defendants, won’t be using his Water Street condominium in downtown Baltimore anytime soon. In early January, he began serving a 14-year prison sentence for intimidating witnesses on behalf of one of his clients, Shaheed “Roger” Khan, a former Marylander convicted in New York of running a massive Guyana-based cocaine conspiracy.

Simels purchased Unit 1201 at 414 Water St. with Rosalie Jackson in 2008 for $362,300, according to land records. Rosalie Jackson is the mother and business partner of Kenny “Bird” Jackson, the politically connected ex-con who owns the Eldorado Lounge strip club on East Lombard Street.

Over the years, Kenny “Bird” Jackson made use of Simels’ prodigious skills as a criminal-defense attorney, including for a New York case in 1991, when Jackson was acquitted of the 1984 murder of cocaine wholesaler Felix Gonzalez after Gonzalez’ relatives testified against the government at trial. Today, in addition to running the Eldorado, Kenny Jackson is the producer/director of The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired, a series of docu-dramas that claim to tell the real-life stories behind HBO’s The Wire.

Other notable drug-world clients of Simels who appeared in Maryland courts over the years include:

Eric Clash of the politically connected Rice Organization drug conspiracy, which also involved restaurateur Anthony Leonard of Downtown Southern Blues, a tenant of Kenny Jackson’s; Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, a legendary Queens, N.Y., gangster who faced gun charges here; and former fugitive Shawn Michael Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 12, 2008), an associate of accused kingpin Maurice Phillips, who is currently facing the death penalty in a lengthy drug-conspiracy trial in Philadelphia. (See also our stories on Green’s arrest [“Return Flight,” Motown Beat, Dec. 24, 2008] and his guilty plea [“Shawn Green Pleads Guilty,” The News Hole, Dec. 11, 2009] made in Dec. 2009.)

Big Target: Feds in New York Dub Indicted Defense Attorney Simels a “Danger,” Aim to See His Fees in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 12, 2009

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On Thursday, Feb. 5, the Justice Department took two shots at Robert M. Simels (pictured, from http://www.simelslaw.com), the self-described “Rolls Royce” of criminal-defense attorneys.

In New York, where Simels is charged with witness intimidation in connection with his defense of former Marylander Shaheed “Roger” Khan (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who is accused of running a violent Guyanese cocaine conspiracy, prosecutors called Simels a “palpable danger” to public safety and convinced a judge to keep Simels’ bond, which is secured with his $2.5 million Westchester, N.Y., home, at $3.5 million.

Meanwhile, in a Baltimore case that appears unrelated to Khan, another Justice Department attorney asked a judge to order Simels to cough up detailed information to a grand jury about how he’s getting paid to represent accused drug trafficker and money launderer Shawn Michael Green (“Flight Connections,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 12, 2008).

Just another day in the decades-long war between Justice and Simels.

In the mid-1980s, shortly after Simels had entered private practice on the heels of a career as a young federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, then New York’s U.S. attorney, tried and failed to get information about Simels’ fee arrangements with clients. But today in Maryland, according to local attorneys, the law is clear that grand juries are entitled to look at attorneys’ fee arrangements, though they rarely do so.

“It’s rare but not unheard of,” says former federal prosecutor and longtime defense attorney David Irwin, when asked about how frequently the grand jury goes after attorneys’ fees. He predicts that “the government is going to win the motion and Simels is at best filing a delaying action.”

Simels is famous in New York for representing high-profile clients such as Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff (“New York Boys,” Mobtown Beat, June 4, 2003) and Henry Hill, whose gangster stories have entered popular culture. But Simels’ Baltimore clientele over the years, such as Green, tend not to be household names–though they are accused of being high up in the game and are often well-connected. Two of them–Eric Clash of the Rice Organization (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, Mar. 2, 2005) and Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1995), who owns the Eldorado Gentlemen’s Club–have known ties to Baltimore politics.

The motion filed against Simels in the Shawn Green case, by assistant U.S. attorney Kwame Manley, is stunning for its disclosures about a secret grand-jury investigation. Green was captured after nearly two years on the run, and at his first court appearance in December 2008, Simels was at his side. In light of what the Justice Department reveals in Manley’s motion, the grand jury is interested in whether or not Simels was getting paid to represent Green during his lengthy stretch on the lam.

What’s known about Green so far is based largely on court records in Baltimore and in connection with a sprawling federal prosecution in Philadelphia against the Phillips Cocaine Organization (PCO), in which Green is not a defendant. Real-estate lawyer Rachel Donegan, mortgage broker David Lincoln, and Green’s mother, Yolanda Crawley, pleaded guilty last year to their parts in Green’s allegedly illicit assets and activities, with interests spanning the East Coast from Florida to New Jersey.

Yet the Justice Department, according to the motion to compel Simels to open up his books, thinks Green kept up the conspiracy while on the run, after his co-conspirators were arrested. It expects to file more charges. The grand jury, the motion continues, “is continuing its investigation of Green and other individuals,” and “the Government believes that during Green’s nearly two-year period as a fugitive, he continued to launder proceeds of illegal activity through known co-conspirators in this case.”

The specific information sought by the grand jury from Simels concerns “attorney fees and retainers received for the representation of Green, the amount of funds received, the identity of the individuals who provided such funds, and the dates and manner in which such funds were provided (i.e., cash, check, wire, etc.).”

Last March, with Green still a fugitive, Simels told City Paper in a telephone interview that he was not Green’s attorney. The question was raised because court records show that Simels had been sent mail from U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in connection with the federal forfeiture of Green’s Reservoir Hill apartment building and recording studio.

Simels did not respond to messages left at his office for this article. The Justice Department declined to comment.

The government’s strong language came in reaction to a Feb. 2 bond-modification request by Simels’ attorney, Gerard Shargel, who sought to remove the secured money bond as a condition of Simels’ release pending trial. In it, Shargel points out that the bond set on Sept. 10 “was not based on any judicial finding that Mr. Simels poses a risk of flight or a danger to the community,” and thus asserts that the prosecutors cannot show that Simels poses such risks.

The prosecutors, Steven D’Alessandro and Morris Fodeman, went ahead and called Simels dangerous anyhow, while arguing that they are not required to prove that he is. In doing so, they restated the allegations–that Simels sought to bribe and threaten witnesses, including with violence–and note that Simels is wealthy, that the evidence against him is strong, and that his behavior was conducted in his role as an attorney.

“The Court can have little confidence,” the prosecutors continued, that Simels will not further obstruct justice “now that Simels, as opposed simply to a client, would benefit” from such crimes. Thus, they concluded, “there exists a palpable danger were the defendant released without significant pre-trial conditions,” such as the high bail set when he was first arrested.

The New York round went to the government when the judge agreed last Friday to keep Simels’ bond set high. Green’s judge in Baltimore, J. Frederick Motz, set a Feb. 23 deadline for Simels to submit his opposition to Manley’s attempt to open up his books on the Shawn Green account.

Working Overtime: Drug Conspirator Eric Clash Says Cooperating Rehabilitated Him

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 1, 2009

His well-fitted gray suit and good-natured confidence lend 30-year-old Eric Clash the look of an earnest young professional as he stands behind the defense table on March 9 in U.S. District Court Judge William Quarles’ courtroom in Baltimore. With bright eyes shining under his clean-shaven dome and a light, trimmed beard on his chin, Clash doesn’t look like what he is: a second-generation drug dealer who, after agreeing to plead guilty to charges in a massive drug conspiracy, has spent the past three years helping the government make criminal cases. He appeared before Quarles on March 9 to ask for leniency, saying he left the thug life for good when he became a cooperator.

When Clash was first charged in 2005 as a member of the violent, politically connected Rice Organization drug conspiracy, which operated in Baltimore from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005), prosecutors seized about $150,000 from his bank account and said he “occupied a high level” in the group’s hierarchy. Today, with Quarles set to sentence him, Clash is projecting the image of a changed man in grave danger, due to his cooperation with authorities.

Of the 13 Rice Organization co-defendants, Clash is one of three who remains to be sentenced. The other two are Steven Campbell and Anthony Leonard, who also have been revealed in open court to have cooperated with the government. The remaining 10 Rice Organization co-defendants–brothers Howard Rice and Raeshio Rice, Chet Pajardo, Eric Hall, Robert Lee Baker, Michael Felder, Keenan Dorsey, George Butler, Oreese Stevenson, and James Jones Jr.–are serving prison sentences, with release dates ranging from two or three years from now until 2030.

In addition to bringing a steady stream of cocaine to Baltimore, the Rice Organization was responsible for violence, including murder. Among the businesses associated with the crew was Downtown Southern Blues, a restaurant on Howard Street’s Antique Row whose landlord was Kenneth Antonio Jackson, an ex-con and strip-club owner with a long history in the drug game and local politics (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1995). Several Rice Organization members gave campaign funds to local politicians, some of whom held fundraisers at Downtown Southern Blues.

One of the Rice Organization members, Pajardo, co-owned an East Baltimore corner-store property with Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, the wife of actor Will Smith (“Star-Crossed,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 9, 2005). Another, Butler, was featured in 2005’s infamous Stop Fucking Snitching DVD, produced in Baltimore to warn off potential cooperators. Clash, who bought and sold Baltimore real estate including a westside bar called the Red Door during his drug-dealing years, is the son of Edward Clash, who himself was convicted of drug dealing in 1994.

Four Rice Organization rivals–Willie Mitchell, Shelly Martin, Shelton Harris, and Shawn Gardner–were convicted of numerous federal organized-crime charges last fall. Among them were murder charges arising from the 2002 stabbing of three Rice Organization members, including Clash and Raeshio Rice, outside the now-defunct Hammerjack’s nightclub in downtown Baltimore, after a birthday party for Baltimore-born rap mogul Kevin Liles. In February and March, three rivals received life prison sentences while Martin received a 400-month sentence.

Both Clash’s lawyer, Robert Simels, and his prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney Jason Weinstein, tell Quarles that Clash is over and done with his former life in the game, and that he holds promise in lawful pursuits in the future.

Weinstein says Clash is an “extremely bright man” with “impressive potential.” He says Clash’s sentence reduction will be “richly deserved,” since “‘exemplary’ is the word I’d use to describe Mr. Clash’s cooperation.” He reminds the judge that Clash had “less of a role in the conspiracy” than two other indicted Rice Organization members, Steven Campbell and Anthony Leonard, who also cooperated as part of their pending pleas.

Simels’ job is easy, given the prosecutor’s lavish praise for his client: “It is rare in my experience that I have heard an assistant [U.S. attorney] speak as glowingly as Mr. Weinstein has of Mr. Clash,” he says. And Simels, a New York attorney with a decades-long history of representing major drug figures in Maryland (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who himself is currently under indictment in New York for witness tampering in a Guyanese cocaine case (“Big Target,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 12), has plenty of experience.

Simels tells the court that Clash’s cooperation has been “remarkable in terms of his assistance to this community, and the United States as a whole,” as “set forth fully” in a sealed letter to the judge. He says Clash is married now, has professional expertise in real estate and construction, is taking classes, and has “adopted his faith as his guiding light.

“He’s not going to be in trouble again in the future,” Simels says. “At some point we have to demonstrate the sacrifice that he’s made” and “make sure the reward is an appropriate sentence.” The attorney recalls that at one point putting Clash in the witness-protection program was discussed. He says that Clash’s cooperation puts him in danger, and “to incarcerate him at this stage puts a burden not only on the [U.S.] Bureau of Prisons, but also on Mr. Clash, who will be looking behind his back at all times.”

Simels suggests that Quarles impose a “non-incarceration form of sentence.”

“I am pleading for leniency to save my life,” Clash tells Quarles on his own behalf. “I have put my family in jeopardy, myself in jeopardy. . . . I am here to better myself.” Clash says he now plans to help steer people away from crime. “When I was living that lifestyle, I knew it was wrong,” he says. “Nobody forced me into the decisions I made.” He says he wants to write a book to help others, especially children, get the direction he lacked when he was younger.

Clash tells the judge that while he was cooperating with the government, he spent three months working as a mortgage broker in New York, and that he went to Detroit, where he learned about educational broadcasting while working on a documentary for a major cable channel.

Quarles tells Clash that his cooperation “goes some distance to correcting some of the damage you and your cohorts inflicted on this community [by] bringing in more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine.” Instead of the 10-year sentence the federal guidelines call for, Quarles gives Clash 48 months, with credit for 16 months already served.

After the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein explains that Clash received an extraordinary break. As a matter of policy, Rosenstein says, his office recommends a two-level departure for cooperators who help prosecutors in the case they are charged in, and two more levels if they help in other cases. In Clash’s case, he says, Weinstein recommended that Clash get the standard four-level departure for cooperators that helped in cases other than their own, but Quarles tacked on two more, for a total of six years shaved off the sentence.

“You really have to do a lot to get recommendations for departures of more than four levels,” Rosenstein says, but in cases of cooperators who go the extra mile, “we increasingly make exceptions to it. Ultimately, the judge decides.”

In this case, Quarles decided that Clash’s work helping prosecutors was valuable enough to schedule him for release from prison in late 2011, and, in order to enhance his safety, to have him assigned to prisons that maximize protection from the expected threats of other inmates.

It may not be all the leniency Clash was hoping for, but it’s a pretty good deal compared to the long, hard time his old Rice Organization running buddies are serving.

Harm City

By Van Smith

Published as a “Postmark: Baltimore” column in New York Press, 1998

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Back in August 1996, when I moved into the house I recently purchased, my next-door neighbors appeared to be a problem. A bullethole still marred a windowframe of their rented house, left there after a Sunday afternoon shootout on the street a few months earlier. They kept seven chows in the basement; you could hear the inbred curs barking in the dark, day and night. About a dozen people used the house as a temporary crash pad on a rotating basis – younger guys, mostly, with shiny Acuras and eye-fucking attitudes. The landlord lived in New York City and apparently was waiting for the bank to foreclose on the property so he wouldn’t have to be responsible for the shady scene going down on his property.

Within weeks of moving in, I noted a connection between my next-door neighbors and the barbershop around the corner. Fresh Cuttz, it was called. Open all night, its barber chairs were always full and lots of traffic moved through its doors. Late at night, flashy cars with out-of-state license plates were often double-parked before its entrance. Directly in front of the shop was a payphone, a well-placed utility for the high-volume retail drug trade spreading a half block in either direction. I regularly saw many of the guys who lived next door to me hanging in or around Fresh Cuttz.

I was curious, so I asked around. Although many neighborhood people said they had complained to the police about drug dealing they believed was originating from Fresh Cuttz, no one had any information about cops ever having busted the joint. The police, for their part, said three separate investigations had reached the same conclusions: Fresh Cuttz was a place where drug dealers went to get their haircuts, end of story. This made the neighborhood people laugh cynically. Some were of the honest opinion that police were connected to the drug dealing there.

Around this time, an FBI agent who works the press in Baltimore started warming up to me. He would call regularly, friendly as can be, probably in an attempt to get information about the things I look into as an investigative reporter. I never gave him anything that hadn’t already been printed, but he would call me anyway to chat about local politics. When he started offering personal information about himself – where he lives, where he went to high school – I figured he was extending a measure of trust. Not wanting to be needlessly paranoid in dealing with a federal agent, I returned this gesture by telling him the location of my new abode.

“That would be right around the corner from Fresh Cuttz, right?” the FBI guy asked. I was amazed that he would be aware of the place. After plugging him for more information, I learned that Fresh Cuttz caused a blip on the radar screen of a federal investigation of convicted money-launderer Gregory Scroggins. Court records show that Scroggins drove an undercover FBI agent posing a DC drug dealer looking to hide money in Baltimore real estate straight from the Downtown Athletic Club to Fresh Cuttz. Just as he was pulling up to the barbershop, ostensibly to meet with a potential co-investor, Scroggins noticed the suited white men tailing him in an unmarked car, so he took off. The operation failed, but my FBI guy, who was in charge of the investigation, was convinced Fresh Cuttz was somehow connected to the potential co-investor, who name was Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson.

I got quite a rush from this information. Earlier that year, I had written about Jackson. I reported that he was a strip-club manager who, along with his mother, was trying to get a liquor license for a major new downtown nightclub apparently by using a surrogate applicant and the interventions of controversial state Sen. Larry Young. Jackson himself, an ex-con who says his violent days as a leading figure in Baltimore’s west-side drug trade are over, was not legally permitted to hold a liquor license, so he was attempting the next best thing: using a high school guidance counselor with a clean record as the licensee. The scandal exposed not only Jackson’s past crimes and current shenanigans with the liquor board, but also his shoulder-rubbing with some of Baltimore’s most powerful political leaders. If the folks living next to me were associated with Jackson – as it now seemed they were – I had good reason to be paranoid.

After the article ran, my publisher got a letter from New York attorney Robert Simels, who not only counsels jailed New York gangster Henry Hyde, but also my new-found nemesis, Kenny Jackson. On Jackson’s behalf, Simels was threatening to sue me and my employer, Baltimore’s City Paper, for libel. He never followed through, but I was very impressed that Jackson would have such an expensive attorney pen such a piss-poor letter to my publisher. I would have expected the threat to come from Jackson’s esteemed local attorney, Piper & Marbury’s George Russell, a former judge, city solicitor and president of the Maryland Bar Association. Jackson seemed to be saying, “See, I can afford the costliest – just like Henry Hyde.”

Jackson can afford more than expensive attorneys. He has given thousands to the campaign coffers of the city’s three top political leaders: Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Council President Lawrence Bell (who got $3500 from Jackson, his largest contributor) and Comptroller Joan Pratt. He bankrolled a political action committee, called A Piece of J.U.I.C.E. (Justice, Unity, Integrity, Choice, Equality), which was formed to give people on the streets of Baltimore – many of whom can’t vote because they, like Jackson, have felony convictions – a voice in the political process. J.U.I.C.E. spends thousands among the city and state politicians.

Perhaps the contributions explain Jackson’s extraordinary access. At a birthday party for a politician’s mother last fall, Jackson was the only person there – other than the mother – who wasn’t either an elected official or an elected official’s employee or spouse, according to a person who was at the celebration. A plaque from former U.S. representative and now NAACP President Kweisi Mfume hangs over Jackson’s desk in his backroom office at his strip club, the Eldorado Gentlemen’s Club.

The existence of Kenny Jackson explains a lot about Baltimore’s political culture. He has everyone who knows him convinced that he’s just a businessman, an ex-con trying to redeem himself by making legal money in the entertainment business. And maybe that’s all he is. But then there’s the matter of Scroggins (who, by the way, is widely said to be the father of Mayor Schmoke’s adopted son), caught on a wiretap calling Jackson “the nicest guy in the world, but he’s a killer and he has killed.” (Jackson was once convicted of manslaughter, and later beat a murder charge in New York.) Meanwhile, Jackson is making cash overtures to the city’s political elite. And the elite is not shying away from him by any means.

“Mr. Jackson is a businessman, that’s all I have to say,” City Council President Bell told me after the scandal erupted.

The lingering question after hearing such a statement is, Which business is he in, entertainment or drugs? Even if Jackson no longer controls a sizeable chunk of the Baltimore drug trade, as law-enforcement officials speaking background insist he does, he has this very sinister history involving large sums of cash, guns and white powder. It seems that in Baltimore it is okay for politicians to be associated with people like Kenny Jackson. No one gets outraged about it; rather, folks generally seem fascinated by the details without having any sense that something is fundamentally amiss. Perhaps this numbness has been learned after living with generations of corrupt leaders. After all, this is the state that produced such stalwarts of integrity as Spiro Agnew and still displays his bust in the state Capitol.

If you run the numbers on the size of the local drug trade, you begin to understand why Baltimoreans might tend to write off their leaders as corrupt. The city health department says there are 50,000 daily users of heroin or cocaine in Baltimore city – a conservative estimate, I’d say. Let’s assume each of them spends $50 per day to support his habit – also a conservative estimate. And this goes on 365 days a year. That’s 50,000 times 50 times 365, or $912.5 million a year. Money is power, politicians love power, so people tend to presume some of this money must somehow be getting into some politicians’ pockets. The easiest way for average citizens to deal with this possibility is to accept it and go on with their lives. Who’s going to shut down a $912 million-a-year industry? An outraged citizenry? No way, especially since so much of the citizenry creates the demand that fuels that industry.

On Jan. 3, 1997, Fresh Cuttz made the news. James Smith, III, a three-year-old sitting in a barber chair to get his birthday haircut, was killed in the crossfire of a shootout inside the barbershop. The police investigation concluded that the violence was over stolen shirts. Smith’s death caused a widespread spasm of hand-wringing in a city that consistently rates in the top 10, per capita, for murders. Media coverage of the murder stressed the tragedy not only of Smith’s death, but of the barbershop owner’s victimization; these were legitimate businesspeople, the media reported, who had the misfortune of having senseless violence visit their innocent premises. Following the murder, Fresh Cuttz shut down, and so did the drug market in my neighborhood.

The guys next door with the chows, they moved out a few months before the Smith murder; the house is now owned by a bank and is vacant. Kenny Jackson is laying low at the Eldorado, where his butt-slapping variety show is shot on video for the city’s public-access cable channel. His buddy Larry Young – the state senator who tried to help Jackson negotiate the liquor board – was just expelled from the state Senate in early January for breaking ethics laws by using his public office for fun and profit. Schmoke, Bell and Pratt are all still in power, trying their level best – but to no good effect – to turn “Harm City” back into “Charm City.”

For my part, I own a fully functional, three-story, historic storefront row house with an oversized backyard located within 10 blocks of the city center for $34,500. I don’t think that kind of money would buy a parking space in Manhattan.