Local

MARK SHELNUTT TRIAL | Witness tampering charge dismissed

U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land dismissed the witness tampering charge against Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt in his federal money laundering and drug trial.

Shelnutt was facing a 40-count indictment on conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering, witness tampering and bribery. If convicted of the drug charge alone he could face 10 years to life in prison. The case is being heard by Judge Clay Land in U.S. District Court.

Land threw out the witness tampering charge after the prosecution rested its case late Friday. The prosecution requested the charge me dismissed.

Shelnutt's defense attorney Craig Gillen then asked the judge to dismiss the entire indictment.

"I have some concerns, but I am not prepared to take this case from the jury," Land said.

The judge said he would let the defense motion to dismiss "ride," reserving the right to rule at a later date. That ruling could come even after a verdict, Land said.

Land had already dismissed the jury for the weekend, ordering them to be back in court at 8 a.m. Monday when the prosecution said it had concluded its case.

After lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne's surprise announcement, Land gave the attorneys a 15-minute break. The judge will hear motions from the defense and prosecution before he dismisses everybody for the day.

Hyde: Shelnutt immunity request astounding

The final prosecution witness was Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Hyde, who told jurors Shelnutt asked for personal immunity from federal prosecution in exchange for Shelnutt's client, Torrance Hill, cooperating with federal authorities.

Hyde said the November 2007 letter in which Shelnutt made the request was "astounding."

"I had to read it four or five times because I couldn't believe what it said," Hyde told the court.

At the time, Shelnutt was the subject of an investigation involving his relationship with Hill's drug organization.

Shelnutt is facing a 40-count indictment on conspiracy to distribute cocaine, money laundering, witness tampering and bribery. If convicted of the drug charge alone he could face 10 years to life in prison.

Shelnutt was attempting to arrange a deal for Hill to help federal agents in Tennessee when the attorney made the request for immunity. If Hill cooperated with the authorities, it could have lessened his prison sentence.

"He has a client who has a potential benefit, and he was not going to get the benefit unless he got a benefit," Hyde testified.

Hyde declined to offer immunity and the Tennessee authorities did not use Hill it their investigation.

Hyde, a Georgia Bulldog fan, also told the court about being offered Georgia football tickets by Shelnutt in the fall of 2007. One count of the indictment is a bribery charge stemming from the ticket offer to Hyde.

"He called and offered free tickets to opening day in Athens," Hyde said.

Hyde declined the offer and Shelnutt offered Georgia-South Carolina tickets the next week, Hyde testified. The federal attorney declined again.

"In all fairness, he said if free was an issue, I could pay face value," Hyde testified.

The trial was continuing at 4 p.m. Friday. The prosecution has been putting on its case since Tuesday morning.

Day claims partners split cash

A former Shelnutt law partner testified this afternoon that partners in the firm of Berry, Shelnutt, Day & Hoffman held regular meetings where they divided cash provided by Shelnutt.

Lead prosecutor Carlton Bourne asked Day if "it was cash money not on the books."

"Yes, sir," Day said.

At times it was $1,000 to $1,500 per partner, Day testified. Day, who is no longer partners with Shelnutt, said the meetings were held every week or two.

The money usually came out of Shelnutt's desk, Day testified.

While Day testified Land leaned back in his chair, hands folded in praying position in front of the face and looked straight ahead.

IRS Special Agent Cindy Meyers, who investigated Shelnutt, also testified. She showed cash deposits into accounts controlled by Shelnutt and his former wife Chris Shelnutt.

The court took a break at 2:45. The testimony has been ending at 2:30 most days, but Land said there would "be some bonus coverage" Friday as he tries to complete the trial before Thanksgiving.

Bookkeeper testifies

A bookkeeper with knowledge of the financial records kept by Columbus Mark Shelnutt's former law firm testified Friday that there were no records of payments from Shelnutt client Shawn Bunkley.

Pamela Roberts, who kept books for Berry, Shelnutt, Day & Hoffman before the firm dissolved last year reviewed the records on QuickBooks software and testified that there were no payments from the two drug defendants Shelnutt represented. Hill and Bunkley both previously testified they had paid Shelnutt in cash.

There were records of more than $16,000 paid to the firm for the representation of Choici Lawrence, another defendant connected to Torrance Hill's drug ring.

Wednesday, Letea Davis, Hill's girlfriend testified she left $14,000 in cash wrapped to look like a Christmas present at Shelnutt's office in late 2006. That money was not shown on the law firm's books, Roberts testified.

It was known Shelnutt kept cash in his desk drawer, Roberts testified. She said she had had a conversation with Shelnutt about cash payments he received.

"He told me it was none of my business," she said.

Torrance Hill claims to have paid Shelnutt more than $250,000 for legal fees. Firm records, according to Roberts' testimony show that Torrance Hill paid Shelnutt $6,000 in May of 2005. There was a $5,000 payment in May 2006 credited to a T. Hill. She could not say if it were Torrance or his then wife Tamika.

The firm's financial records are in the possession of former partner Charles Day.

Ferguson testimony

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Ferguson spent much of the morning on the witness stand Friday morning.

The prosecution, which called Ferguson as a witness, spent most of its time playing excerpts of a nearly 4-hour recorded conversation Ferguson and FBI Special Todd Kalish had with Shelnutt on Feb. 28, 2008.

Shelnutt had called Ferguson to request the meeting, which took place after hours at the U.S. Attorneys office in the downtown SunTrust building. At the time, Shelnutt was representing Choici Lawrence, a defendant in a 2007 Harris County drug case involving the Torrance Hill drug organization.

At the time Shelnutt met with Ferguson, who is based in Albany and handles drug cases throughout the Middle District of Georgia, federal authorities were investigating whether Shelnutt was involved in the Hill drug ring.

The recorded conversation turned from Shelnutt representing Lawrence to Shelnutt facing questions about his role in Hill's operation.

"I suspect I am also a target," Shelnutt said on the recording.

Shelnutt then tried to convince Ferguson and Kalish that he turned on Hill, who was serving a 24 1/2-year sentence. Shelnutt was Hill's lawyer at the time of the guilty plea in late 2006 and sentencing in early 2007. Shelnutt said he brought drug defendant Victor Bryson, whom he was also representing, to the authorities.

"I am the one who got him busted," Shelnutt said of Hill. "The case was made because of Bryson."

Shelnutt also told Ferguson and Kalish that there were a lot of rumors about his involvement in the Hill organization, which Hill testified Thursday was bringing in about $9 million a month just before it was shut down in 2006.

"There were rumors out there I delivered drugs," Shelnutt said on the tape. "There were rumors that I controlled all that money. So many rumors."

Testimony from members of Hill's organization painted a picture of Shelnutt directing the collection of drug debts owed to Hill while Hill was in jail. That is part of the conspiracy charge Shelnutt faces.

On the tape, Shelnutt suggested to Ferguson and Kalish he was helping collect the money for the authorities.

Shelnutt also said law enforcement turned on him.

"I am one lawyer who has been law enforcement's good friend until I dared suggest that they had a weak case," Shelnutt said on the recording. "And, now I am in here having to answer questions."

Ferguson wore a concealed recorder and told Shelnutt he was not recording it when Shelnutt asked him just before the interview started.

Ferguson said he would handle that situation differently now, but he was wearing the wire with the knowledge of his boss.

Less than an hour into the interview, Shelnutt put a recorder on the table and started to record the conversation. At that point, Ferguson left the room and came back, putting his recording device on the table. The issue of lying to Shelnutt about the recording became "moot" at that point, Ferguson said.

  Comments