Threatening witnesses is a bad idea, even if you hang out with mobsters. And Robert Simels should have known that. He is, after all, an attorney.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Simels's witness tampering conviction in August, two years after his 2009 trial for bribing and threatening witnesses to prevent them from testifying against a client's drug gang.
During Simels’s foray into witness tampering, he told Selwyn Vaughn, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant, that he would do whatever he had to do to secure an acquittal for his client, Shaheed Khan, a Guyanese cocaine trafficker. Simels’s whatever-it-takes attitude extended to payoffs and threats.
Vaughn, who had been a member of Khan’s paramilitary “Phantom Squad” in Guyana, secretly recorded five meetings with Simels at which Simels discussed bribing and threatening potential witnesses. Armed with this evidence, the DEA obtained a warrant to search Simels offices and arrested Simels.
A trial court decided that Simels’s tactics were not an appropriate means of preserving his stellar win-loss record, and sentenced Simels to 14 years in prison for a battery of crimes.
Simels appealed his convictions, claiming that the DEA’s use of Vaughn as an informant jeopardized Simels’s attorney-client privilege with Khan, and arguing that his electronic surveillance charges should have been dismissed.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Simels’s privilege argument, noting that the government had a reasonable basis for invading the privilege because Simels lied to prison officials to arrange a meeting with a witness he planned to threaten or bribe.
Robert Simels at least got a break from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on the electronic surveillance charge; because the surveillance equipment that Simels imported from Guyana never worked, it did not meet the legal definition of a “device.” (N.B. do not order expensive electronics from Guyana).
If you’re keeping track of appropriate and inappropriate types of lawyer conduct on your office blotter, here’s a recap: falling asleep during trial is still okay, but threatening witnesses in your trial is not.