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El Chapo hires ex-Gotti attorney Jeffrey Lichtman in drug trafficking case

Alleged Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín

Alleged Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is escorted by federal agents in January 2017. Guzmán recently hired former John Gotti defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman for his federal drug trafficking case in Manhattan federal court. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

Jeffrey Lichtman, a New York criminal defense lawyer best known for successfully representing John Gotti, has agreed to be one of the leaders of a team representing Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera on drug trafficking charges if a dispute over financial issues can be resolved.

In addition, New York lawyer Marc Fernich and Washington, D.C., lawyer Eduardo Balarezo, who defended Mexican trafficker Alfredo Beltran Leyva, confirmed they have agreed to be principals on the team if prosecutors agree to not seek forfeiture of money used for legal fees.

Since he was extradited to the U.S. in January from Mexico, Guzman, 60, has been represented by public defenders on charges that he used murders, kidnappings and ruthless violence to run a billion-dollar cocaine trafficking enterprise as the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

Although the government has a $14 billion forfeiture claim against the accused kingpin, prosecutors have also complained since his arrival in the U.S. that he was wealthy enough to hire his own lawyers without relying on taxpayer funded public defenders.

“The government’s position is that Mr. Guzman is too wealthy to be represented by court-appointed counsel and he should retain private counsel,” said Balazero. “So they can’t now claim that he can’t pay his private counsel. They can’t have it both ways.”

“It’s troubling that the government seems to dispute Guzman’s entitlement to appointed counsel at public expense, on the one hand, while refusing to exempt private counsels’ fees from forfeiture, on the other,” said Fernich.

A spokesman for acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde declined to comment on the dispute.

The dispute over forfeiture has been simmering since June, sources said, and on Monday Guzman’s public defenders asked U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan to weigh in on the issue at a hearing next week and set a deadline for the government to take a final position.

“Counsel are reluctant . . . to formally appear without government assurance that it will not seek to forfeit their legal fees,” federal defenders Michelle Gelernt and Michael Schneider said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan. “We understand that the requested assurance thus far has not been forthcoming.”

They also said they would ask permission for Guzman’s legal team in waiting to file “provisional notices of appearances” to litigate the issue of fees if the government won’t agree to not seek forfeiture.

Lichtman’s best known case was an acquittal and hung jury in a murder-conspiracy and securities fraud trial involving Gotti, the son of the late Gambino family mob boss John Gotti, in 2005. Fernich also worked on the defense in that case.


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