Government Agrees to Pay Noriega Attorneys
MIAMI (AP) _ U.S. taxpayers will foot Manuel Noriega’s legal bills until $20 million of his frozen assets are confiscated or released, under a deal that averts disclosure of secret U.S. payments to the fallen dictator.
Before the deal was reached Monday, Noriega’s lawyers had threatened to quit the drug trafficking case because they hadn’t been paid. Prosecutors froze the former Panamanian leader’s assets, contending they were illegally obtained.
In agreeing to cover Noriega’s legal fees, the government headed off a confrontation over $11 million in U.S. intelligence agency payments he claims to have received over several decades.
Noriega’s lawyers had been trying to force the government to produce secret records of those payments to show Noriega had legitimate sources of income other than drugs. But on Monday, the defense agreed to drop the subpoenas when the deal involving Noriega’s legal fees is formally approved.
The U.S. government ″wanted to avoid litigation that would get into matters having to do, certainly, with classified information, with payments by our government and other governments to Noriega,″ defense attorney Jon May said.
U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen told U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler that the government agreed to cover the legal bills ″to assure Mr. Noriega receives a fair trial.″
The long and complex nature of the case made it possible for the prosecution to invoke a federal law allowing the unusual arrangement, he said.
Noriega, who was in court in his general’s uniform, agreed to sign affidavits declaring he was indigent and promising to repay the government if his assets are released.
″It can’t be said that the American taxpayer is paying for this, because all the funding for the general’s legal fees will come out of the seized assets,″ said chief defense attorney Frank Rubino.
Defense attorney Steven Kollin has estimated Noriega would need $5 million to properly defend himself. The defense contends prosecutors have spent $12 million so far and are prepared to spend $25 million more to convict Noriega.
Hoeveler gave his blessing to the agreement, but it is subject to approval by Chief U.S. District Judge James King. A hearing was set for Thursday.
The U.S. government has frozen 27 Noriega accounts around the world valued at $20 million.
Defense attorneys had subpoenaed records from the CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies for evidence of payments to Noriega during the period he is said to have been a U.S. intelligence agent.
Prosecutors acknowledge the United States paid Noriega. But ″the amount is substantially less than that offered by the defense counsel,″ said Diane Cossin, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office. She would not elaborate.
Prosecutors submitted a list of payments to the judge Monday but insisted it be kept secret.
Noriega was indicted in 1988 on charges of taking $4.6 million in bribes from the Medellin cartel to protect cocaine smuggling into the United States.
He turned himself in to U.S. authorities Jan. 4, two weeks after the invasion of Panama. He is being held at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center outside Miami.