MARK SHELNUTT TRIAL | Casto signed letter because Shelnutt was "shoo-in" for judgeship

Columbus attorney Mark Casto told jurors in the Mark Shelnutt federal corruption trial Wednesday that he signed a letter to the Muscogee County District Attorney calling for an investigation into the Metro Narcotics Task Force because he believed Shelnutt was in line to become a Superior Court judge.

Casto's testimony came as the third day of the trial in U.S. District Court wrapped up.

The trial in the federal court building in downtown Columbus resumes at 8 a.m. Thursday. The prosecution told Judge Clay Land it could conclude its case by the end of the week.

Shelnutt asked Casto to sign the letter looking into the search warrants obtained by Metro, a multi-jurisdiction investigative unit in the Chattahoochee Valley.

"In the legal community, he was considered the next shoo-in judge," Casto said. "I did not want to step on the toes of the person who would be the next Superior Court judge."

He then put it more bluntly.

"I didn't want to cross a judge and have him ruin my practice for the next 20 years," Casto said.

Casto was on the stand because he represented a drug defendant, Shawn Bunkley, who was referred to him by Shelnutt.

Shelnutt faces a 40-count indictment in U.S. District Court. The charges include aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering, witness tampering and attempted bribery. His May 21 indictment alleges a connection between Hill, who pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2006 and was sentenced to 24 1/2 years in prison.

Casto received $9,000 for his representation of Bunkley. The first payment came from Shelnutt and the remainder from Bunkley, Casto testified.

"Mr. Shelnutt paid me $5,000 in cash," Casto testified.

He was asked by lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne where the money came from.

"The left side of his desk," Casto said.

In February 2008 Casto, a former Muscogee County assistant district attorney, found himself being questioned by agents about his possible involvement in the case.

At the time, Casto was representing Bunkley as Bunkley was cooperating with federal authorities.

"Suddenly, you are on the hot seat?" defense attorney Craig Gillen asked Casto. "...You became a witness at that point?"

Casto testified he reluctantly recorded two phone conversations with Shelnutt for the authorities.

Shelnutt was trying to get information from Casto about the case and was repeatedly trying to contact Casto, according to testimony.

On the audio tape, Casto told Shelnutt he could not tell him what happened.

Casto has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The prosecution put two witnesses on the stand early Tuesday morning. They testified that Mark Shelnutt was taking drug money from drug dealers and trying to control the defendants in a Harris County drug case.

Five prosecution witnesses testified before the trial broke for lunch. One of those witnesses was Latea Davis, the girlfriend of convicted drug dealer Torrance Hill, whom Shelnutt is accused of associating with.

Davis, a former elementary school teacher in Atlanta who is now a bartender in her native Los Angeles, was facing drug charges in Harris County when she was represented by Shelnutt, who was also Hill's lawyer. She said she never hired Shelnutt.

"He represented Torrance and it just flowed naturally," Davis said.

She was also represented by other lawyers arranged by Shelnutt, Davis testified.

"It was sort of confusing," she said. "He was the one who came to see me, but someone always would step in when it came to court activities."

She said she paid Shelnutt $14,000 in cash. She said she put the money in a box and "made it look like a Christmas present."

Shelnutt was not in the office when she delivered the package, but a man took it. She said Shelnutt later called and said the package was "short."

"I thought it was $14,000, but I never counted it," Davis said.

Defense attorney Thomas Withers pointed out, in questioning, the money was not directly given to Shelnutt.

"You did not place the money in his hand?" Withers asked as he acted it out, giving a large book to Shelnutt as he sat at the defense table.

"I gave the money to someone else -- at his direction," she said.

Shawn "Biscuit" Bunkley, who pleaded guilty in federal court and is awaiting a December sentencing date, testified he was instructed by Hill and Shelnutt to give $125,000. Bunkley took the stand wearing a blue jail uniform, orange flip-flops and leg irons. He was escorted to the stand by two U.S. Marshals.

Bunkley, who worked in Hill's drug organization and was a mechanic on a race car Hill owned, owed Hill $200,000 for drug transactions. They were both arrested in February/March 2006 and were in adjacent cells at the Muscogee County Jail, Bunkley testified. At that time, they discussed a payment to Shelnutt.

Bunkley was instructed by Hill to give Shelnutt $125,000 and Hill would call their debt even, Bunkley testified. Bunkley said he also met with Shelnutt while he was in jail.

"We went into a small attorney room," Bunkley said. "He wrote on a piece of paper the amount. It was $125,000."

Not long after that meeting Bunkley was released on bond. His lawyer at the time was Shelnutt.

Bunkley said he picked up the cash and took it to Shelnutt in the Publix parking lot on Schomburg Road.

"He was in a tan or gold Mercedes," Bunkley told the jury. "I put a box in the front seat and returned to my car and left. It was $125,000. I counted it and packed it myself."

A couple of days later, he said he was contacted by Shelnutt, who claimed not all of the money was in the box.

"He said it was $70,000 to $75,000," Bunkley testified.

Bourne asked Bunkley if Shelnutt gave him a receipt. "No," Bunkley responded.

In cross examination, Withers pointed out that Bunkley testified before the grand jury twice, changing his testimony the second time.

"You didn't say anything in the grand jury testimony about Mr. Shelnutt telling you how much to pay?" Withers asked.

"They did not ask me that in the grand jury," he responded.

Bunkley told the federal grand jury earlier this year in Macon that he received $90,000 from the sale of Hill's race car to pay Shelnutt. He later changed that testimony when bank records showed he only received $50,000 from the sale of the car to a man from Italy. Wednesday, Bunkley said the car sold for $90,000 and received some of it in cash.

Withers suggested that Bunkley was cooperating with federal authorities to receive a reduced sentence in his federal case.

"You have not been sentenced?" Wither asked. "You were facing 15 years in State Court to a potential of less than 5 years, right?"

"It is just a recommendation," Bunkley said.

The first witness of the day was Derek Wright, an Atlanta attorney who represented Hill's wife, Tamika Hill, after she fired Shelnutt as her attorney on Harris County drug charges.

It was after talking to Wright that Tamika Hill cooperated with federal authorities and wore a wire tap to meetings with Shelnutt, Wright to the jury. Wright said his concern as Tamika Hill's attorney was Shelnutt was representing multiple defendants in the Harris County case.

"Mr. Shelnutt not only had a conflict of interest, Mr. Shelnutt also could be a witness in our defense," Wright testified. "The defense was Mrs. Hill was brought into the indictment because she was picking up money at the direction of Mr. Shelnutt. ... But for Mr. Shelnutt telling Tamika to go get this money, she wouldn't have been indicted."

During a February 2008 Superior Court hearing in Harris County, Wright said in open court that Shelnutt was the subject of a federal investigation.

After that hearing, in which Bunkley was present, Shelnutt had a meeting in his office with several of the defendants, including Bunkley, Latea Davis and Choici Lawrence. There were also family members of defendants present, Bunkley said.

The meeting was at Shelnutt's request, Bunkley said.

"There was no other lawyer," Bunkley testified. "... He told everyone to be quiet and stick together."

"Was that for your benefit?" prosecutor Bourne asked.

"No, sir." Bunkley said. "It was for his benefit."

The defense tried to discredit Wright, the Atlanta attorney, by bringing up a reprimand he received in 2005 from the Georgia Supreme Court. The sanction came from a 2003 personal injury suit he filed on behalf of a client against Wal-Mart. He admitted to mishandling the case during Wednesday's testimony.