The U.S. government used an Omaha attorney to smuggle a phone into the jail and record Shannon Williams as he directed a massive marijuana operation.
The government wired Williams’ cellmate to try to record any incriminating statements. And FBI agents even wired the attorney-client privilege rooms at the Douglas County Jail — the rooms where inmates are supposed to be able to meet in private with their attorneys or pastors.
So in a 49-page ruling Monday, a judge took dead aim at one party’s actions in the case — calling them cunning and manipulative.
That party? Williams himself.
Senior U.S. District Judge Lyle Strom refused to dismiss the indictments or condemn the U.S. government’s actions in its highly publicized, much-scrutinized investigation that led to the indictments of Williams and 10 others.
In the pivotal ruling in the case, the judge had no criticism of the U.S. government’s use of attorney Terry Haddock to record Williams over eight months last year in the jail. During that time, Haddock recorded Williams 63 times — and supplied him with the cell phone Williams needed to orchestrate his operation.
The judge’s bottom line: You can’t use an attorney to commit a crime.
“The government’s conduct in utilizing Haddock was not outrageous,” Strom ruled. “Williams (argues) that the attorney-client relationship will be unnecessarily damaged if the indictment against him is not dismissed.
“The court does not share Williams’ pessimism. It is already well established that communications between a client and an attorney are not privileged if the communication is regarding ongoing or future criminal activity.”
Deborah Gilg, U.S. attorney for Nebraska, declined to comment on what is a clear victory for her prosecutors. Gilg said she wouldn’t discuss the ruling because of Williams’ pending trial.
Williams is scheduled to go to trial in April. However, that trial may be delayed if Williams attempts to appeal a separate pretrial ruling by Strom.
“I’m disappointed but I’m unfazed and undeterred,” said Williams’ attorney, Michael Tasset. “We’ve got other eyes (appellate courts) who are going to look at the judge’s decision and the government’s investigation. We’re going to press on.”
In preserving the government’s case, the judge issued a layered ruling that raised no qualms about the government’s use of Haddock but left open questions about whether the attorney would face disciplinary consequences.
After reviewing portions of several recordings, Strom concluded that Haddock was not acting as Williams’ attorney.
Williams and Tasset had argued that Williams had paid Haddock thousands of dollars of what they said were retainer fees. They also argued that Haddock had done legal work for Williams on the disparity in sentences for defendants convicted of dealing crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine.
Strom said it was clear what Williams was paying Haddock for: his cell phone, not his legal advice.
“The questions Williams posed to Haddock were general legal questions akin to what a non-lawyer would ask a lawyer at a party,” Strom wrote.
Strom noted that Haddock was in no way representing Williams in his criminal defense. At the time, Williams was represented by Eric Whitner, who has since died, and Omaha attorney Steve Lefler.
The judge even used Williams’ own words against him. He noted a few recordings in which Williams himself denied that Haddock was his attorney.
In one taped phone call, Williams told an associate: “(Haddock) does not represent us, he is just a friend, he is a lawyer who is a friend.”
Strom’s ruling relied mostly on the tape recordings and made little mention of:
ŸWilliams’ questions about Haddock’s credibility and the attorney’s ability to remember events of that time. Haddock has testified that he decided he had to wear the wire because Williams had talked of “eliminating” two witnesses in the drug case. Williams denied that allegation — and noted that no police officer documented the purported threats.
Tasset had pointed to Haddock’s reeling personal and professional lives. In the months leading up to his wearing of the wire, Haddock had stopped answering clients’ calls and had failed to defend a client in a civil lawsuit. Court documents indicate that Haddock suffered from severe depression and had to seek mental-health treatment.
“We believe the court improperly discounted, or avoided, all the evidence that damaged Haddock’s credibility,” Tasset said.
ŸNyasha Muchegwa — whose indictment brought Haddock into the case. Muchegwa was jailed on FBI agents’ belief that she was serving as a lookout for the transfer of 329 pounds of marijuana.
Muchegwa, a Zimbabwean immigrant who describes herself as a former escort, had been charged as a lookout for the marijuana conspiracy. However, prosecutors dismissed her charges after Haddock took her to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Haddock later counseled Muchegwa’s boyfriend, Richard “Ricky” Conway, who also was charged in the conspiracy.
Like Haddock, Conway also wore a wire in the jail to record Williams. Judge Strom rejected Williams’ attempts to throw out Conway’s recordings, too.
Strom said Haddock’s actions “may be worthy of professional sanction.”
“But ... the evidence he obtained was not collected in violation of the Constitution,” Strom wrote. “The merits of (an ethics) complaint will be reviewed in due course. The result of that matter, however, should have no effect on determining whether the government acted outrageously.”
Strom also dismissed Williams’ arguments that the government’s use of Haddock would crumble a legal bedrock: attorney-client privilege.
“The court’s decision today merely reaffirms the principle that an attorney’s presence cannot be used as a shield to (cover up) future criminal activity,” Strom wrote. “That was the rule before this case, and the rule remains intact hereafter.”
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