Trials & Litigation

Attorney on trial in claimed law firm racketeering case can't get some witnesses to testify


Seven weeks into the federal trial of a New Jersey criminal defense attorney accused of operating his law firm as a racketeering enterprise that trafficked in drugs and prostitution and conspired to murder adverse witnesses, the prosecution has rested. Paul Bergrin, 57, who is acting as his own lead counsel, began presenting the defense on Wednesday.

Among the first to testify on his behalf was Bergrin’s pregnant 31-year-old daughter. Paul Bergrin, a seasoned criminal defense lawyer who formerly worked as a state and federal prosecutor, was apparently overcome with emotion and took a break before Beth Bergrin told the jury about a 2008 visit by her father to Chicago, reports the Record.

Bergrin said her father had come to Chicago, where she lives, to visit his 4-month-old granddaughter. The government has contended that Bergrin came to Chicago to discuss with former gang member Oscar Cordova, who served as a paid informant for the feds, how to silence witnesses against a then-client of the attorney, cocaine trafficker Vicente Esteves.

However, Bergrin was not able to get all the witnesses he wanted to the witness box.

An earlier Record article reported that the unusual arrangement of having a jailed lawyer defend his own complex criminal case has created some additional headaches for all concerned in the Newark, N.J., case.

Like the federal prosecutors trying to prove his guilt, Bergrin has to rely on a number of convicted criminals as witnesses. But some are not immediately at hand, leading to contention about how long the trial might have to be delayed as their arrival is awaited.

After the jury was sent home on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh told Bergrin that the court can’t wait more than a day or two for witnesses to show up, the Record reported.

“I cannot be prejudiced and have a critical witness precluded based upon logistics,” Bergrin responded, urging Cavanaugh to use “judicial power” to get the witnesses to court.

Responded the judge: “I have limitations as to what I can do. I do not run the U.S. Marshals Service.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gay argued that Bergrin should have done a better job of arranging in advance for witnesses to be subpoenaed, the newspaper article recounts.

However, attorney Lawrence Lustberg, who is serving as standby counsel to Bergrin, said a list of witnesses had been given to the marshals on Feb. 11, well within the two-week timetable they had indicated was needed.

A further problem, once the witnesses arrive, is whether their testimony could present Fifth Amendment issues, the government argued.

Bergrin said the feds are “trying to chill the proceedings and keep the truth from coming out.”

Cavanaugh has arranged for two additional standby lawyers to be on hand to advise witnesses who may need legal counsel on statute of limitations issues and whether their testimony on Bergrin’s behalf might tend to incriminate them personally, the Record notes.

The newspaper doesn’t explain how such issues were handled concerning prosecution witnesses, although presumably those cooperating with the feds felt it was to their advantage to do so.

Two convicted felons whom Bergrin tried to call as witnesses on Wednesday didn’t make it to the stand after deciding to take the Fifth to avoid potential self-incrimination. Bergrin asked the judge to give them immunity in exchange for their testimony, but Cavanaugh declined.

Additional coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Fellow lawyer who took plea tells jury Paul Bergrin tried to ‘get to’ witnesses against clients”

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