||Last Updated: Jun 5, 2009 - 11:59:09 AM
Legendary local attorney Robert Simels is only being punished for
representing some of New York's most unredeemable gangsters, say some
in local legal circles. Kind of a what-goes-around-comes-around
Simels not only lawyered for mafia turncoat Henry Hill (on whose life
GoodFellas was based), but also some of the biggest Latino and black
drug kingpins of the '80s and '90s. And now, Simels himself is in deep
trouble. He's been indicted for allegedly tampering with witnesses in a
case revolving around a comparatively little-known Guyanese drug
gangster, Shaheed "Roger" Khan.
As it happens, the veteran lawyer is also the star of a reunion that
could only happen in New York City. Simels is being tried before U.S.
Judge John Gleeson, who made his rep as a dogged prosecutor of John
Gotti. And for his own defense, Simels has hired Gerald Shargel, one of
Gotti's main lawyers and a guy who is, in fact, one of the most
prominent mob lawyers in the city.
While some people may see this as an attempt to deliver a comeuppance
to Bob Simels, you won't see him showing up in Gleeson's court as a
meek supplicant. Nor will you see the prosecutors doing any
pussyfooting. "That is basically the underlying story here," says
Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy, the book on Henry Hill that was
adapted for Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas. "Simels takes great joy in
being a criminal defense lawyer. He goes in there with his smirk and
his expensive clothes and likes to piss off guys who make $80,000 a
Pileggi, who worked with Simels on both the book and the movie deal,
adds: "The government hasn't forgotten about the past, and they want to
rap him on the knuckles. These are not the kind of people who leave the
game at the ballpark."
It's somewhat strange that Khan is overshadowed in all this. Though
he's not particularly well-known to the general public here, he's a
South American drug kingpin. But to New Yorkers, Khan is likely to stay
in the background. Here's one of those rare cases in which the gangster
reaches a plea agreement with prosecutors, and the gangster's lawyer
winds up facing trial.
A DEA agent's affidavit—based mostly on audiotapes of Simels allegedly
tampering with witnesses in the Khan case—was enough to bring the
obstruction charges against Khan, Simels, and a Simels associate,
During his preparation for his defense of Khan, the government says,
Simels and Irving discussed a slew of ways to obstruct justice and
otherwise tamper with witnesses, "from offering them money to murdering
their family members." The government claims to have recorded
conversations during which Simels allegedly talked about "neutralizing"
witnesses—and not in a benign way.
When Simels, Khan, and Irving were indicted last September, Simels had
to recuse himself from Khan's defense team. Last month, Khan accepted a
plea deal, admitting to cocaine trafficking as well as to the
witness-tampering charges stemming from the Simels tapes, in exchange
for an expected 15-year sentence. (The deal allowed Khan to avoid being
nailed on charges of operating a "continuing criminal enterprise.")
Lawyers for both Khan and Simels swear that the plea deal had nothing
to do with Simels's arrest or Shargel's involvement in defending him,
although, as part of his deal, Khan (who has not been formally
sentenced) will not have to testify against his former attorney.
As for Simels? He's free on $3.5 million bail and could face up to 10
years in prison, which, for the 62-year-old high-flying lawyer, could
mean an end to his career.
By any accounting, Robert Simels stepped into a hornets' nest in Guyana
when he took on the case of Roger Khan, who was arrested in 2006 by DEA
agents in Suriname, Guyana's eastern neighbor, and renditioned to New
York via Trinidad. Simels was hired, family members and associates say,
on the strength of his reputation for taking high-profile drug cases.
Khan, 37, besides being an alleged drug lord, is also accused of having
been the driving force behind the "Phantom Squad," a shadowy,
extrajudicial police force linked to some 200 killings in Guyana. From
at least 2001 until his arrest, the DEA says, "Khan . . . obtained
large quantities of cocaine, and then imported the cocaine into the
Eastern District of New York and other places, where it was further
distributed. Khan was ultimately able to control the cocaine industry
in Guyana, in large part, because he was backed by a paramilitary squad
that would murder, threaten, and intimidate others at Khan's direction.
Khan's enforcers committed violent acts and murders on Khan's orders
that were directly in furtherance of Khan's drug trafficking
Khan's story is not that of a simple drug runner, though. In 1993,
while he was living in Vermont and already had one felony under his
belt, he was indicted for possession of a firearm, released on $1,000
bail, and "departed to his native country of Guyana and never returned
to the United States," according to a court document prepared by John
Bergendahl, another of his attorneys. In Guyana, "Khan founded and
operated a number of successful businesses, including, but not limited
to, a housing development and a construction company, a carpet cleaning
service, a nightclub, and a timber mill."
Khan's reputation seems to diverge along racial lines in Guyana, where
about half the population is of African descent and half of East Indian
descent, like him. To many Indo-Guyanese, he is a folk hero,
responsible for cleaning up the streets when the country's police
force—which is predominantly Afro-Guyanese—couldn't or wouldn't, giving
East Indians, who dominate the business community, a layer of
protection where none previously existed. Khan has claimed, without
copping to the existence of the Phantoms, to have helped the government
put down a crime spree stemming from a 2002 prison break, and to have
collaborated with the U.S. government in the region, most notably in
the case of the safe retrieval of an American diplomat who was
kidnapped off a Guyana golf course in 2003. Afro-Guyanese are more
likely to associate Khan first and foremost as a leader of the Phantom
Squad—a drug runner and thug, to blame for just about every suspicious
death in Guyana. (Guyana, like Suriname, is a transshipping point for
South American cocaine destined for North America, Europe, West Africa,
and the Caribbean, according to the DEA.)
"Certainly, the numerous, unexplained deaths that we had in Guyana have
not been there" since Khan has been off the streets, says Raphael
Trotman, a Guyanese lawyer and founder of the Alliance for Change, a
political party that aims to be non-racialized. Trotman says that while
he has no direct evidence of Khan's involvement in the Phantoms, things
have been noticeably calmer in Guyana since his arrest. "There is a
correlation between the lack of deaths and his absence." (Vic Puran,
Khan's Guyana-based lawyer, calls the Phantoms—and Khan's involvement
in them—just that: a figment of the imagination.)
After Khan's arrest, Simels made two trips to Guyana, where the case
has dominated the press, to organize his defense. On one of these
trips, in July 2007, he held a press conference at which he seemed to
play to Guyana's racial politics in order to argue that Khan was the
victim of a politically motivated frame-up. Simels then proceeded to
list the names of presumptive witnesses against Khan—even going so far
as to spell out their names—and discredit them through linking them to
involvement in the drug trade.
In a small country like Guyana—with its population of about 800,000,
most located in or around the capital of Georgetown—the naming of
witnesses was widely interpreted as putting them at risk of retribution
from the Phantoms or from emboldened enemies of the incarcerated Khan.
None of the names blared out by Simels, however, had been listed by the
prosecution as witnesses. Dora Irizarry, the presiding judge in the
Khan case, granted a government motion to have a gag order placed on
Simels. Irizarry wrote that Simels's statements at the press conference
"appear to serve no purpose other than to attempt to silence,
intimidate, and harass the identified individuals and to put them and
their families and friends, many of whom live in Guyana or within
Guyanese communities in the United States, in danger." She added that
"he practically provided the press with a road map to some of their
homes, spelling out names and identifying the family business in Guyana
of one named individual." The lawyer's comments, she wrote, "ran so
obviously contrary to his obvious ethical duties that, at one point,
even members of the press . . . questioned the propriety of Simels's
It wasn't only the press that was questioning Simels's propriety—and it
wasn't only Simels's public remarks that were being scrutinized.
Without his knowledge, the attorney was being monitored by government
investigators. According to DEA agent Cassandra Jackson's affidavit,
Simels told an informant that if the informant was called to testify,
he (or she) "would need to lie about certain things," and that a
certain witness, "John Doe No. 1"—the same witness Simels supposedly
expressed interest in "neutralizing"—was the linchpin of the
government's case. Simels allegedly told the informant that he or she
could help Khan by locating "possible government witnesses and/or the
witnesses' family members" so that they might help influence potential
In a subsequent meeting, according to the affidavit, Simels reiterated
that he wanted John Doe No. 1 not to testify, saying that "we need to
know every little detail of his life" and that "the government's case
will collapse if the witness is neutralized by us [pause] or
neutralized by us on cross-examination." The affidavit goes on to say,
somewhat cryptically, that "Simels further explained that they should
explore both options."
"I think [John Doe No. 1] might rethink his position once we start
reaching out to his extensions," the informant allegedly said to
Simels, continuing, "One thing I've learned is that a man—whether he's
a criminal, he's a preacher, he always values his mother. . . . You
don't ever want anything to happen to her."
According to the affidavit, Simels then cautioned the informant about
killing the witness's mother, but said, "Whatever [Khan's] got to do
financially, he's going to do to resolve these issues. [Pause.] There
is money that's available." Then the informant, according to the
affidavit, "suggested that John Doe No. 1 'might suddenly get amnesia,'
" to which Simels allegedly replied, "That's a terrible thing, but if
it happens, it happens."
The informant, according to the court documents, "asked Simels about
the possibility of 'heat' coming back to Khan if a government witness
stops cooperating and refuses to testify because someone close to him
or her 'fall[s] off the face of the earth.' Simels replied: 'They'd
have to figure out a way to tie it back to Roger [Khan]. . . . But
[pause] it seems to me that—that [pause] I'm going to leave it to you
to figure out what's going to best get to [John Doe No. 1].' "
Later in the summer, in another meeting at Simels's office, according
to the affidavit, the informant told Simels that another witness, "Jane
Doe No. 2," was "willing to testify in conformity with Khan's defense."
Simels then allegedly typed up a statement outlining what he wanted the
witness to say, including that John Doe No. 1 was affiliated with a
terrorist organization and that he intended to falsely testify against
Khan. According to the affidavit, "the document also had blank spaces
in which Jane Doe No. 2 was to add names. The informant then told
Simels that Jane Doe No. 2 wanted $10,000 in exchange for signing the
In a subsequent telephone conversation about the payment, which was
recorded by the informant, Simels allegedly said, "Tell her that
obviously she can't get any money until she meets with me, but that
I'll make the agreement with her. . . . She's got to meet with me. If
she does it and she signs the document, she gets half then and she gets
half when she, ah, finishes testifying."
The taped conversations make up the meat of agent Jackson's affidavit,
which has landed Simels in trouble and has now brought together in one
courtroom three of the most notable figures in the recent history of
New York mobsters and the lawmen who pursued them.
Gerald Shargel and John Gleeson first clashed during one of John
Gotti's trials in the early '90s. Shargel, who had been for some time
an attorney for members of the Gambino crime family, was part of the
Gotti defense team, which also included Bruce Cutler, a barrel-chested,
bombastic defense attorney who, through his combative courtroom manner,
played the role of bad cop to Shargel's good cop. It was Gleeson, then
a prosecutor, who engineered the disqualification of Shargel and Cutler
from Gotti's defense, on the grounds that they had become "house
counsel" to the Gambino crime family. Gleeson's argument stemmed from
recorded conversations at the Ravenite Social Club (now a shoe store on
Mulberry Street), in which John Gotti is heard complaining about the
high price tag that accompanied Shargel and Cutler.
Gleeson threatened for years to bring Shargel and Cutler up on charges
of witness tampering and obstruction of justice, based on the Ravenite
tapes and possible testimony from Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, Gotti's
underboss and a former Shargel client, who began cooperating with the
government in 1991. After a four-year investigation, the U.S.
Attorney's office abandoned pursuing charges against Shargel and Cutler.
Gleeson, who became a judge in 1994, has a glowing reputation in legal
and law enforcement circles. Bruce Mouw, the former Gambino case
supervisor for the FBI, says Gleeson was "one of the finest prosecutors
I've ever worked with, a quality professional."
Perhaps the strongest testimonial to Gleeson's reputation as a
mob-busting prosecutor came in 1992, when Gotti's new lawyers sought to
have Gleeson removed from the Gotti case because he had an "intense
personal interest" in prosecuting the crime boss.
While Gleeson was making his reputation and then ascending to the
federal bench, Shargel has become one of the most sought-after criminal
defense attorneys in the city, having represented a rogue's gallery of
accused mobsters—including Jimmy Burke, the model for Robert De Niro's
Jimmy Conway character in GoodFellas—and a host of other high-profile
clients, including Stanley Friedman, the former Bronx borough president
convicted of racketeering in 1986. Shargel is now working on the
defense of the accused money launderer Marc Dreier, another prominent
New York attorney.
Even his opponents attest to Shargel's competence. Sean Haran—a former
prosecutor who faced off against Shargel in the money-laundering case
involving the rap label Murder, Inc.—recalls that Shargel virtually put
on a clinic: "He is extremely well prepared, knows the evidence,
exploits every weakness," Haran says. "The guy knows what he's doing."
And Shargel has tried a case before Gleeson, one not without
similarities to the Simels case. In the murder trial of Michael
Burnett—a lifelong con man who was the driving force behind the graft
scandal at the New York City Parking Violations Bureau that ensnared
Friedman—Shargel defended attorney Howard Krantz, who was accused of
supplying a hired killer with a gun used to kill a Staten Island bank
teller who was set to testify against Burnett in a fraud trial. In the
trial, Shargel categorized his client as a dupe, but Krantz was
Shargel is smooth enough, of course, to say he's pleased that Gleeson
is the trial judge on Simels's case. "I have enormous respect for him,"
Shargel says. "As a taxpayer, you get what you pay for with him. He's a
fair and intelligent judge."
As for Simels? "He is willing to do things that lawyers shouldn't do on
behalf of their clients," says a former prosecutor and adversary of
Simels who declines to be named. "Some attorneys go beyond being
advocates and become part of the organization, which is unfortunate
because Simels is a competent lawyer, but he definitely crosses the
line. I've seen enough of Bob Simels that it does not surprise me that
his name has come up as someone who would be in this kind of trouble."
Not so, says Shargel.
Concerning the affidavit and other contentions by prosecutors, Shargel
calls the conversations on the tapes "a cat and mouse game," in which
ambiguous conversations "dangle in mid-air" and, besides, contain
material that is "profoundly helpful" to his defense of Simels.
Shargel won't directly touch the topic of whether the prosecution of
Simels's conduct is punitive, saying only, "I have my own private
thoughts on the motive for sending in a . . . wired cooperator on very
scant evidence of anything."
The allegations contained in the government's indictment of Bob Simels
are similar to allegations that have dogged him for years, particularly
those levied against him during the 1988 trial of accused drug kingpin
During that trial, court documents show, Simels paid a visit to a
witness, who had confessed to the government his involvement in the
attempted murder of a witness against Davis. When Davis and the
cooperating witness were mistakenly put into the same holding cell in
the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Davis allegedly told the witness
that he would send his lawyer, Simels, to see him. According to court
documents, "the purpose of the lawyer's visit was for [the witness] to
sign a paper stating that he 'ain't going to testify.' "
Two days later, Simels presented an affidavit from the informant that
said his previous statements to the government about Davis were false.
The government then presented evidence stating that, during his visit
with the informant at MCC, Simels warned the informant that "he should
not testify against his 'friends' from the 'street,' while [his] family
[was] out there." A mistrial was declared as the specter of Simels's
becoming a witness in the trial loomed.
You almost have to think that Bob Simels would know better than to get
himself in this kind of trouble. He began his career in the early '70s
in the New York State Special Prosecutor's Office, where he worked on
the prosecution of corruption cases involving links between the NYPD
and organized crime.
Simels has told Pileggi that, upon entering private practice in the
late '70s, he had always wanted to be a mob lawyer, but because of his
association with Hill, who was considered a "rat," Italian gangsters
sought to distance themselves from him. Simels wound up representing
drug kingpins who have become street legends, such as "Boy George"
Rivera, who, by the time he was arrested at 21, according to the feds,
had amassed some $15 million from his "Obsession" brand of heroin. (In
1991, Rivera received a life sentence without parole.) Another of
Simels's clients, Thomas "Tony Montana" Mickens, was known for his
profligate spending, acumen as a money launderer, and obsessive
admiration for Al Pacino's Scarface character. He is now serving a
Another of Simels's clients was Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols, the Jamaica,
Queens, drug gang leader now serving a life sentence on narcotics
charges and an additional 40-year sentence for the 1985 murder of his
parole officer. It was Nichols's associate, Howard "Pappy" Mason, who
was convicted in the murder of rookie police officer Edward Byrne, a
killing that brought a new level of law enforcement scrutiny and public
attention to the kingpins, and signaled the beginning of the end of
Of Simels's kingpin clients, perhaps none is more notorious than
Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, who, along with his violent "Supreme Team"
drug gang, turned South Jamaica Queens' Baisley housing projects into
what is said to be one of the models for the Carter, the enormous
crackhouse/storehouse in the movie New Jack City. McGriff's stature in
southeast Queens—along with romanticized notions about his influence
there—have made him a point of reference for many rappers. (Indeed, it
was 50 Cent's detailed description of the Supreme Team organization's
machinations in his song "Ghetto Qu'ran" that, prevailing street wisdom
has it, led to his being shot nine times during a 2000 attempt on his
life.) In 1989, under Simels's counsel, McGriff pleaded guilty to drug
charges and served the better part of eight years behind bars (he had
been facing 150 years). In 2005, he was charged, along with Irv and
Chris Gotti, née Lorenzo, with laundering Supreme Team drug money
through the rap label Murder, Inc., which was headed by Irv Lorenzo.
Their case was ultimately separated from that of McGriff, and the
Lorenzos, with Gerald Shargel as part of their defense team, were
eventually acquitted. McGriff was charged with ordering the murder of
two rivals in 2001 and is serving a life sentence. (Simels also
defended former Jets Ken O'Brien and Marc Gastineau to satisfaction in
their respective assault charges in the '80s; O'Brien's stemmed from a
Studio 54 brawl, Gastineau's from a domestic incident.)
Retired FBI agent Mark Johnston—who helped build cases against Mickens,
Nichols, McGriff, and several of their associates—remembers Simels from
those cases as a defense attorney who could come off as "crass and
offensive," was capable of offending judge and jury alike, and would
fight tooth and nail to contest even the most minor procedural issue.
"Even though a lot of this is a show," says Johnston, "the defendant
might think, 'Hey, this guy is really willing to be a rebel and fight
for me', but all he's doing is ticking everybody off, and, in the long
run, that is not going to serve you well."
In fact, court documents show that the presiding judge in the Mickens
trial eventually recused himself from the case "due to the acrimonious
relationship" that developed between him and Simels during the trial,
and eventually recommended Simels for censure. The basis for
disciplinary action was detailed in a 2005 memorandum denying Mickens's
motion for a reduced sentence. Eastern District Judge Joanna Seybert
concluded that Simels did not relay an offer of a plea deal to Mickens
so that he could continue to collect legal fees. The judge wrote that
Simels helped Mickens execute a power of attorney in the name of one of
Mickens's aliases, so that Mickens's brother could access two safety
deposit boxes that were said to be stocked with ill-gotten money. That,
coupled with subsequent trips by Simels to Jackson, Mississippi, where
the safety-deposit boxes were located, wrote Seybert, "raise the
specter that Simels may have been willing to compromise his ethical
obligations in an effort to be paid."
How much the word "ethics" will be bandied about in Gleeson's courtroom
is anybody's guess. As the April trial date in the case against Bob
Simels approached, the prosecutors' net seemed to have tightened around
him. The government unsealed a new indictment against Simels based on
evidence found amid materials confiscated from Simels's law office,
which included "illegal electronic eavesdropping equipment,
approximately $2,500 in cash, jewelry, a loaded firearm, and
computers." The prosecution clearly felt confident enough in the new
evidence to risk the likely postponement of the trial, which is now
scheduled for July—at which time Bob Simels's tactics as a lawyer will
get more public notice than he ever dreamed of.
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