Feds: Mark Shelnutt an 'active participant' in drug ring

Prosecutor: Indicted defense attorney not targeted for his work representing criminals

ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 10, 2009 

In its most stark language to date, federal prosecutors in the case against Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt said he methodically worked outside the law’s boundaries and “went from being an advocate to being an active participant in Torrance Hill’s drug organization.”

Shelnutt, linked to convicted drug dealer Hill, whom he once represented, was accused in May in a 40-count indictment on charges including aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering, witness tampering and attempted bribery. In a Thursday response to a motion Shelnutt filed that seeks to dismiss the indictment, Carlton Bourne Jr., special attorney to the attorney general, lays out allegations against Shelnutt in clear terms.

“Defendant initially asserts that he was ‘targeted … for his vigorous representation of criminal defendants,’” Bourne writes. “This investigation, in fact, began when information was received by law enforcement that the defendant was violating the law.

“While the defendant would rather place blame elsewhere, the defendant’s current trouble arises from his own criminal conduct and not with the investigative efforts of the federal agents.”

Torrance Hill

Shelnutt once represented Hill, who was sentenced in February 2007 to 24 1/2 years in prison on drug charges. Bourne’s Thursday response claimed that while Shelnutt represented Hill, the attorney tried to “shop” his client’s cooperation to assistant U.S. attorneys in a federal case out of Tennessee.

In a letter dated Nov. 1, 2007, Shelnutt offered Hill’s cooperation to a prosecutor contingent on immunity for himself, Bourne claims.

“‘If there is some ongoing investigation, there should still not be a problem as the stakes here are far greater than anything I could have potentially done or been involved in,’” Bourne says Shelnutt wrote.

Mark Casto

In his motion, Shelnutt accused Columbus attorney Mark Casto of being a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant, and accused Casto of trying to get incriminating statements from him.

Casto represents Shawn Bunkley, one of 10 defendants initially linked to what authorities have called the biggest drug bust in Columbus. Bunkley is linked to Hill, and Bourne says Shelnutt tried to represent Bunkley before Casto became his attorney.

After Casto was retained, Shelnutt kept contacting him, Bourne says, and met him without Casto’s permission in February 2008.

“At that meeting, Shelnutt informed Bunkley and others that Shelnutt was being targeted by investigators, and that Bunkley and others should ‘stay together’ and not cooperate,” Bourne writes.

Bourne stated that agents started actively investigating Shelnutt in January 2007.

Federal agents tried to get Casto to confirm Shelnutt met Bunkley without his permission, and though Casto was reluctant, he did return calls to Shelnutt, which were recorded, Bourne says.

Casto never asked Shelnutt questions, however, and Bourne claims Shelnutt is the one who tried to pry into the attorney-client relationship between Casto and Bunkley.

Death threats

In his motion, Shelnutt stated that around Oct. 16, 2008, an assistant U.S. attorney called Shelnutt’s attorney and told him a credible threat had been made on Shelnutt’s life. The FBI then assigned two agents who were investigating Shelnutt to look into the death threat. The FBI refused to provide Shelnutt with protection, the motion says.

“However, several United States deputy marshals, a GBI agent, and FBI Special Agent Mark Imes participated in the investigation and threat assessment concerning the alleged threats,” Bourne says. “As for protection, the Marshal’s Service conducted a threat analysis and no threat could be substantiated.”

More responses

Prosecutors in Shelnutt’s case filed numerous responses this week to motions Shelnutt filed in an attempt to have more than 30 counts in his 40-count indictment dismissed.

The deadline for the government’s responses was Thursday — the day Bourne filed a motion asking U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land to find moot a June 23 motion by Shelnutt asking for specific pieces of evidence.

In his Thursday response, Bourne said the government has already given Shelnutt some 12,602 pages of documents, which include recordings of telephone calls from jails, the document states.

“The government began providing discovery to defendant before he was even indicted,” a footnote in Bourne’s response states. “For example, the government e-mailed to defendant’s currently retained counsel on February 12, 2009, the transcript that is an exhibit to defendant’s motion to suppress.”

Shelnutt filed several motions in June asking Land to dismiss most of the counts against him. Prosecutors responded to many of those motions this week, including one in which Shelnutt asked for 31 counts of money laundering to be tossed out.

In his motion, Shelnutt argued that those 31 counts should be dismissed because they didn’t meet legal muster. Bourne claimed Shelnutt cannot attack the indictment for omitting information it isn’t required to have.

In a Wednesday response to Shelnutt’s request that two charges of failing to file a payment of more than $10,000 be dismissed, prosecutors said it isn’t necessary for the indictment to fully explain the proof it will use to support the allegation.

Another Wednesday response referred to a motion of Shelnutt’s requesting the identities of alleged conspirators and information about how Shelnutt allegedly helped distribute drugs.

Again, Bourne points to what he calls the “liberal and excessive” discovery Shelnutt has received, which Bourne said will give Shelnutt no excuse that he was surprised by something at trial.

Land has scheduled a Tuesday hearing on many of Shelnutt’s motions.

Shelnutt’s trial is scheduled for Sept. 8.

Contact Alan Riquelmy at 706-571-8622

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