10/19/07

Judge quits Union Boss-Lawmaker graft trial

It has been over a year since former Flushing Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin pleaded ‘not guilty’ to a litany of federal racketeering charges, including that he swindled union members and local Little Leaguers out of more than $2.2 million.

Yet, over the past year, McLaughlin has seen his lawyers stall the impending criminal trial — to vet prosecutors’ mountain of evidence against their high-profile client, they say — one time after another.

Until recently. With jury selection finally set to begin last Monday, political observers citywide prepared for one of the borough’s longest-awaited political graft trials in recent memory.

Then guess what happened?

The public trial phase was postponed yet again — and this time through no apparent efforts by McLaughlin’s defense team. Instead, presiding judge Kenneth Karas caused the most recent delay.

For reasons that remain unclear, Karas recently transferred his chamber from Lower Manhattan to another U.S. Southern District Courthouse in White Plains. In the process, the judge brought with him all but a few of his pending cases in tow. One of the cases left behind was McLaughlin’s.

When asked why, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Southern District Court in Manhattan declined to comment — saying only that “relocating judges can transfer their trials to other judges on a case-by-case basis.”

McLaughlin’s attorney, Michael Armstrong, could not be reached for comment; nor could federal prosecutors on the case.

In the meantime, Manhattan Federal Court Judge Richard Sullivan, who took the reins for Karas, has rescheduled the jury selection phase for January 21, 2008.

But by the time McLaughlin’s newly rescheduled trial begins, assuming no further delays, it will have been over 15 months since he was first formally accused.

Prosecutors unsealed their 186-page indictment on Oct. 16, 2006, charging that McLaughlin had defrauded taxpayers, union members, political contributors and the Electchester Little League out of millions of dollars for more than a decade.

Authorities alleged that the widely popular, married lawmaker, once considered a likely mayoral hopeful, used the stolen cash to fund weekend stays at his Long Island estate and expensive gifts for girlfriends.

If convicted, McLaughlin could spend the rest of his life in prison based on multiple counts of fraud, money laundering and embezzlement. He is out on $250,000 bail.

Since the pre-trial phase began, however, McLaughlin’s legal team has requested four adjournments in order to mount their defense against prosecutors’ overwhelming body of evidence — which is likely to include boxloads of incriminating documents, bank records and wiretaps.

Because of Karas’ recent transfer, the defense lawyers will have another three months to prepare.

However, that’s assuming the case ever makes it to the opening phases.

At a June pre-trial hearing, U.S. Assistant District Attorney Daniel Braun hinted at the possibility of plea bargain, telling Karas’ in his former Manhattan courtroom: “We have a lot to talk about with the defense in terms of whether a trial is going to be necessary.”

(zwire.com)

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