In society, lawyers are among the most knowledgeable folks around, when it comes to the law. However, some lawyers (like Paul Bergrin, the subject of our latest issue’s cover story) go astray, and join the criminal underworld in their illegal activities. The latest lawyer to go down is Philadelphia attorney James Michael Farrell. On February 12, he was charged, in a 12-count indictment, with conspiracy, money laundering, tampering with an official proceeding, and witness tampering, in Greenbelt, MD.
On the surface, Farrell was “dedicated to representing persons accused or injured in state and federal courts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and nationally,” according to his practice’s website. Underneath, he aided an extensive cannabis crew with laundering their proceeds. The organization Farrell washed cash for was headed by Matthew Nicka, and included Nicka’s wife, Gretchen Peterson and David D’Amico. In March 2009, the DEA busted the Baltimore house that served as the outfit center of operation. The agents seized “more than 80 pounds of [cannabis], $20,000 in cash, 31 cell phones, documents regarding a plane purchased for $450,000, and tally sheets showing over $14.5 million in marijuana sales, among other items,” according to the DEA.
The three named pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute at least 1,000 kilograms of weed and conspiracy to commit money laundering in January. They had been fugitives since 2010. Nicka and Peterson were arrested in Canada in August 2013, while D’Amico was extradited from Colombia. They are scheduled for sentencing in May.
Where does Farrell fit in? From 2009 to April 2013, he conspired with the Nickas organization to “conceal the source, location, ownership and control of the drug proceeds.” Members of the crew would deliver cash to Farrell, who would deposit a portion into his commercial accounts as payments under the names of folks who never retained his services. The DEA details further:
In addition, Farrell wrote checks and disbursed cash to pay for the legal representation of grand jury witnesses or individuals charged or under investigation in Maryland in connection with the activities of the Nicka Organization, including legal representation by two Baltimore area attorneys. According to the indictment, Farrell also used drug proceeds to obtain money orders and deposit them into the inmate accounts of incarcerated individuals with knowledge of the drug conspiracy. Farrell and his co-conspirators structured financial transactions to evade IRS filing requirements for transactions involving $10,000 or more in cash, thereby further concealing from the government large cash transactions by members of the Nicka Organization and its suppliers and customers.
The indictment further alleges that in February 2011, Farrell met with a drug dealer to discuss filing a claim with the DEA to seek the return of certain property DEA had seized from the drug dealer. Farrell allegedly advised that individual not to disclose to DEA who had given the drug dealer the property. On February 28, 2011, Farrell caused affidavits in support of the forfeiture of the property to be filed with DEA that contained the purported notarized signature of the drug dealer, when in fact the drug dealer had not appeared before the notary public.
On July 11, 2012, Farrell allegedly met with another drug dealer, knowing that person was represented by other counsel, and agreed to contact the Nicka Organization to obtain funds to assist with the drug dealer’s legal expenses. Farrell directed the drug dealer to meet with federal law enforcement officers and federal prosecutors, but to only tell them what they already knew, rather than sharing all the information the drug dealer knew about the drug and money laundering conspiracy charged in the Nicka indictment. On July 31, 2011, Farrell again met with the drug dealer and allegedly paid him $19,800 in cash.
Farrell pleaded not guilty and was released. He will remain under the surveillance of U.S. Pretrial Services until his hearing. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for conspiracy to engage in money laundering and each of six counts of money laundering; a maximum of 20 years for each of three counts of tampering with an official proceeding; and a maximum of 20 years for each of two counts of tampering with a witness.