Prosecutors in the storied Southern District of New York face yet another allegation of withholding evidence, this time in a prominent case against the former vice president of Venezuela.
Manhattan Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein took the rare step last Wednesday of allowing a Florida businessman the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea to arranging the flights for former Vice President of Venezuela Tareck El Aissami. The businessman, Victor Mones Coro, pleaded guilty a year ago to the trips that violated U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, yet prosecutors continued to produce massive amounts of evidence against him.
“The lateness of the government production … concerns me,” Hellerstein said.
“Obviously this late production by the government is a chunk of evidence that you have not had an opportunity to consider. So if you wish to withdraw your plea, I will allow it.”
Coro chose to withdraw his plea on Friday. A key cooperating witness in the case was charged in September with lying to federal agents, further complicating the case, filings show.
But the evidence problems have given El Aissami fodder for relentless mockery of the case on Twitter.
“The web of smears and false evidence is collapsing,” Aissami tweeted last month. “Not even the media at service of imperialism can hide the gravity of the construction of accusations based on lies, criminals and protected mercenaries.”
The controversy arises as the Southern District, which prides itself as the premier U.S. Attorney’s office in the country, is reeling from a botched case against Iranian businessman Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad. A different Manhattan Federal Court judge is probing how and why prosecutors discussed “burying” an exculpatory document in the midst of Sadr’s trial for violating sanctions on Iran.
Mones’s attorney, Christine Chung, wrote that the case involving the illegal flights for Venezuelan bigwigs was handled by the same unit that prosecuted Sadr. The Southern District’s damage control in Sadr beginning in July overlapped with the newly produced evidence in the Mones case, Chung wrote.
“The extremely late, serial, and ongoing efforts to supplement pre-trial discovery — as well as belated investigations of the Confidential Source that led to the highly unusual event of the Source being charged with lying to federal agents — are further evidence of ‘patterns’ of … violations,” Chung wrote, citing remarks from the Sadr case.
Breaking News Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
The evidence disclosed after Mones’ guilty plea shows he was less culpable than it appeared at the time of his guilty plea, Chung argues.
The Southern District also faces allegations of withholding crucial wiretaps in the case against accused Hudson River bike path terrorist Sayfullo Saipov. The government said the wiretaps were discovered after court-ordered deadlines due to “inadvertent human and technical errors.”
The office has said it is taking steps to prevent the mistakes in Sadr from happening again.
Bradley Simon, a defense attorney who worked as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, said it was “almost unprecedented” for a judge to invite a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea.
“For a long time there has been a feeling among the defense bar that the government is sort of lax when it comes to producing exculpatory evidence,” he said.
“Now there have been some judges that are starting to call them out and it’s long overdue.”