By Albert Samaha
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By Roy Edroso
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 situation.
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 year."
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, Arienne Irving.
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 conspiracy."
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."