On Friday, a federal jury will likely begin deliberating the fate of a prominent criminal defense attorney facing up to 20 years in prison.
Attorney Robert George is accused of helping a former client launder money, but the government's use of a key witness in a sting operation against George is raising eyebrows.
Key Witness, Mob Enforcer
Ron Dardinski looks like a guy you'd think about handing your wallet to if he ordered you to. Hands the size of hams, big shoulders, black shirt open to reveal a gold chain; Dardinski claims he was a mob enforcer. He's the government's key witness against George.
Defense attorneys, like the well-respected Joseph Krowski, have rallied to support George.
"If I were on the jury," Krowski said, "I would have been hard pressed to believe a witness like that."
Dardinski testified that in a 2009 chance encounter with George, his former defense attorney, George offered to clean Dardinski's crime money for a fee. At the time, and unknown to George, Dardinski was an informant working for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the supposed drug money was actually federal money put up for the sting. Dardinski secretly recorded some 37 conversations with George.
"I think the credibility of this witness on the stand is pretty critical in the Bob George case," Krowski said.
In the annals of contemptible and outrageous criminals who have become cooperating witnesses for the government in recent years, the office of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has found a stand-out in Dardinski. Career criminal, repo man-turned-leg breaker and swindler, Dardinski has had two wives, six children and 11 restraining orders — one after he almost strangled his girlfriend.
Dardinski has been a longtime informant for the DEA — they have paid him $75,000 over the years, $28,000 as a witness in this particular case. And believe it or not, Dardinski has a deal with the government that calls for a performance bonus if George gets convicted -- Dardinski will get extra money and 10 percent of any assets forfeited by the defendant. That could mean tens of thousands of dollars or more if George is convicted.
"Most people who observe the system understand that it's really a scandal that the government is allowed to use witnesses like this."Harvey Silverglate, civil liberties trial lawyer
"Most people who observe the system understand that it's really a scandal that the government is allowed to use witnesses like this," said Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties trial lawyer.
When the government makes the witness's financial interest contingent not just on testifying but testifying well enough to win a conviction, Silverglate says, "Then courts begin to hold their noses. And there has been some speculation, at least within the First Circuit, that such testimony should be inadmissible."
But it is not yet inadmissible, so Dardinski gets the money if the government gets a conviction.
Government prosecutors routinely explain to jurors that they would prefer to put nuns on the stand if they could, but they need such unseemly characters as Ron Dardinski to get at the truth. In this case, however, Dardinski has gone beyond being unseemly. Under cross examination he's been caught in numerous lies while under oath.
Caught In A Lie
The prosecution has told the jurors that what triggered the DEA operation was a chance encounter between George and Dardinski after Dardinski got out of jail. It says George offered to launder Dardinski's drug proceeds and Dardinski told the DEA.
But then came cross-examination by defense attorney Robert Goldstein.
"Did you ever tell anyone you'd smash Mr. George's head in?" Goldstein asked.
"Not that I recall," Dardinski said.
Goldstein quickly moved to the contention that rather than having a chance encounter with George, Dardinski was pursuing him, and trying to set him up for payback because he thought George owed him money from the past.
"Well, is that something you would recall, Mr. Dardinski?" Goldstein asked.
"Probably," Dardinski said.
"Well did you say it?"
The answer: No.
And with that, Goldstein pulled out and teed up the recordings of phone calls Dardinski had made to his girlfriend from jail, in which he vowed that he'd smash George's head in.
Clearly Dardinski had motive and bias for setting George up, argued the defense. Slumping in his chair, the ex-enforcer Dardinski was forced to acknowledge what he had previously denied. And Goldstein established that the story of a chance encounter was no longer believable.
"He just sliced away at his legs with a scalpel and cut the legs right out from under the witness and the government's case," said courtroom observer and defense attorney Krowski.
The prosecutor was admitting the government had never listened to the recordings of Dardinski's jail house phone calls to confirm he was telling the truth.
Flustered by the line of cross-examination, prosecutor Laura Kaplan objected, saying the defense had not provided notice of the tapes of Dardinski's phone calls from jail, saying they'd never heard them before.
In other words, the prosecutor was admitting the government had never listened to the recordings of Dardinski's jail house phone calls to confirm he was telling the truth.
"Certainly, professionally, the prosecutors should have checked those tapes," said Silverglate said. "They obviously knew all phone calls from a state correctional facility or a jail are recorded."
On A Mission?
How hard had the prosecutors and the U.S. attorney checked out the witness upon whom they built their case? They've shown an apparent commitment to going after George.
In cross-examination Thursday, defense attorney Goldstein established that Dardinski, the DEA and the same prosecutor (Kaplan, though he couldn't name her) tried to go after George in 2004, but they didn't get a green light.
The charges against George are serious, the secret video is troubling indeed, and he chose not to take the stand. He is in danger of losing his freedom and his law career may be damaged, even if he is acquitted.
The spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Ortiz said she could not comment during the trial.
This program aired on June 8, 2012.