A Turncoat In The Drug War

Looking back on it, the old hands at Kaplan, Russin and Vecchi were never really comfortable with Michel Abbell. Kaplan, Russin is a sedate Washington law firm that specializes in commercial work. Ab-bell, however, was a paunchy criminal attorney who made no apologies for representing drug kingpins like the reputed leaders of the Cali cartel. Then one day in 1989 one of the firm's lawyers in Bogota sent a letter about Abbell to the home office--and the gist of this letter, according to those who saw it, was "My God, he's going to get us killed." The rivalry between the Medellin and Call cartels was approaching open warfare in Bogota; even a respectable U.S. law firm might be bombed. One of the partners tried talking to Abbell. "Why is there even a discussion of this?" Abbell replied. "This is the kind of work that criminal lawyers do."

Abbell probably still doesn't get it, even though he and five other America lawyers were just charged in Miami on multiple counts of what the Feds called "a pattern of racketeering activity" -- the cocaine-smuggling operations of the Call cartel. Friends say Abbell insists he did nothing wrong. His lawyer, Roy Black, says Abbell did no more than any hardworking criminal attorney should do, and that the whole affair is another attempt by federal authorities to harass and intimidate U.S. lawyers who defend drug suspects. The "white-powder bar," as this sector of the criminal-law business is sometimes known, is angry and scared--not least because the charges against Abbell, if proven, could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

The indictment alone is brutal humiliation for a prominent lawyer. Who is Michael Abbell, and how did he wind up in all this trouble? He is 54, married and the father of three children; the family lives in Bethesda, Md., a Washington suburb. Abbell's personal style, according to friends, is old-shoe nerdy: he does not fit the stereotype of a flashy underworld mouthpiece. His idea of a hot vacation is spending a week at Yosemite with the family, and he has a reputation for being slow to pick up the check. The son of a wealthy hotel owner, Abbell was raised in Chicago and is a graduate of Harvard College (class of '61) and Harvard Law School (class of '64).

The most sensational element of the case is the fact that Abbell used to be a ranking member of the U.S. Justice Department--the high command in America's everlasting war on drugs. He joined Justice in 1967 and in 1978 was named to head the department's newly created Office of International Affairs, whose mission was coordinating with foreign governments on law-enforcement issues. The rise of big-time drug smuggling in the early 1980s raised the stakes. Abbell suddenly became a key player in Ronald Reagan's drug war--negotiating extraditions, among other legal business, with countries like Mexico. By some reports, he played his new role to the hilt. "He was always trying to be a big shot," a former DOJ official says. "But he did it in a clumsy way." Some colleagues, mindful of his appetite for foreign travel, mocked him as "the Ugly American." Others, deriding his habit of laughing at his own jokes, called him "the braying ass--" behind his back. In 1982, the department concluded hat Abbell wasn't star material and devoted him to the number-two job in his own section. He endured it for a while, but quit in 1984 to go into private practice.

You can speculate that Michael Abbell as very angry about his demotion--or, just as plausibly, that the allure of big money from the Cali cartel was just too much. "Here he is, just out of he Justice Department, and he looks up with the biggest fish ut there," a fellow criminal lawyer says. "All of a sudden, e's in a position to dole out cases to other lawyers. He's flying down there to meet with he drug lords. It's a heady experience." Whatever the explanation, Abbell changed totally when he went into private practice, migrating first to Kaplan, Russin and, after the partners asked him to leave, becoming cofounder of a small criminal-law firm. Trading on his resume and his expertise in extradition law, he had become a legal adviser to Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela sometime in 1985. Gilberto and his brother, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, together with Jose Santacruz Londono, are the alleged proprietors of the Cali cartel, now the major source of cocaine in the United States.

Though Roy Black denies it, the federal indictment says Abbell was on retainer--that he was, in effect, the in-house counsel to the Cali cartel. The indictment says he flew down to Colombia to meet cartel leaders in person six times between 1989 and 1994. It says he persuaded cartel operatives to give affidavits stating the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers weren't involved, and that he distributed the cartel's legal-defense money to persuade lower-downs not to testify against their bosses. All that, the prosecutors charge, makes Abbell part of the cartel itself--not just a lawyer who played the game a little too hard.

What infuriates many of his former government colleagues is the fact that Abbell for years provided a veneer of respectability to the cartel's broader interests. This is partly because he helped to beat the Justice Department during a hotly disputed extradition case in 1985; Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, arrested in Spain, was sent back to Colombia and easily beat the rap. It is partly because Abbell, who coauthored a six-volume treatise on extradition law, wrote scholarly articles attacking the "disastrous" U.S. drug war. And it is partly because Abbell in 1988-89 lobbied the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against treaty amendments designed to assist U.S. officials in the war against foreign drug traffickers. "The question," one angry Senate staffer said at the time, is, "do we have a cartel lobbyist in Washington?"

To hard-liners at Justice and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Abbell was a turncoat and a pariah. The Call cartel was criminal through and through--and it was simply incredible that Abbell, as he still maintains, believed that the Rodriguez Orejuelas were honest businessmen. Joe Toft, a former DEA official, expressed the prevailing view when he said, "It disgusts me that a former Justice Department official could [serve] one of the worst criminal organizations in history." A former colleague remembers the hostility toward Abbell during an international law conference at Harvard in the late 1980s. "He was already regarded as a major traitor," this source says. "It was as if you had a CIA conference and [convicted spy] Aldrich Ames was there."

Abbell reportedly believes that the charges against him stem from this lingering antagonism. Prosecutors deny that. They say the case is the result of straight-ahead investigative work. It began with an informant's tip in 1991 about Harold Ackerman, a Colombian masquerading as a businessman in Miami. Ackerman actually was the U.S. manager for the cartel's cocaine shipments--a major player. The tip led to the seizure of 22 tons of coke in two separate shipments. It also led to Ackerman's conviction in 1993.

That's where Abbell and one of his associates, a Colombian-bern lawyer named Francisco Laguna, allegedly crossed the line. According to court documents, Laguna visited three suspected employees of the Cali cartel in prison in 1992 to get them to exculpate Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela. Such statements would undercut United States efforts to pressure the Colombian government to crack down on the cartel. One of the suspects -probably Ackerman, though he is not identified by name -- said the prisoners laughed about the obvious falsity of the statements. Later, this suspect's lawyer went to Abbell to complain about possible "obstruction of justice" and insist that Abbell and Laguna stay away from his client. They didn't, and the allegedly false affidavits were signed.

Laguna, who pleaded to lesser charges early this year, is cooperating in the case against Abbell. Sources say that Ackerman's attorney, Edward Shohat, may testify against Abbell as well. Abbell, indicted on June 5, was allowed to attend his son's high--school graduation before showing up to surrender. The trademark bravado was gone--for win or lose, Abbell knows he is about to fight the legal battle of his life.

Michael Abbell