Will U.S. Taxpayers Have To Foot The Bill For El Chapo's Defense?

By Kelly Burch 08/16/17

El Chapo's lawyers fear that their fees will be seized as part of Guzman's assets from his alleged illegal activities.

El Chapo being escorted by federal officials
Photo via YouTube

Infamous drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is awaiting trial in New York City, but it is unclear who will be defending him against the myriad of charges that he faces.

Prosecutors argue that the wealthy defendant shouldn’t be relying on public defenders, but a judge also ruled this week that private lawyers’ fees would not be protected if it was found that they were paid from drug money. 

"I'm not going to pressure the government to create a carve-out for counsel fees," U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said Monday during a hearing in federal court in Brooklyn, according to ABC News

Guzman wants to be represented by a team of private lawyers including Jeffrey Lichtman, the lawyer who represented ex–mob boss John Gotti Jr. who was acquitted of securities fraud in 2005. 

However, Lichtman’s team wants a guarantee from the government that their fees will not be seized as part of Guzman’s assets from his alleged illegal activities. According to Vice, the judge denied that request and said that the lawyers should take the case without protections or not at all, so that “once they’re in, they don’t get out so easy.”

"We are looking forward, desperately, to come into this case and fight for Joaquin Guzman...The guy has a constitutional right to the best counsel he can get," said Lichtman.

However, he then told reporters that the government could freeze his account if it suspected that he was being paid with money obtained from the drug trade, a risk he is not willing to take because the defense will be so expensive to mount.

“That’s sort of the rub of the problem,” Lichtman said. “They said he can hire private counsel, but they haven’t said that private counsel can keep the fee, and we really need to ensure that before we go forward.”

The judge’s ruling means that Guzman will continue to be represented by court-appointed lawyers at the expense of American taxpayers, who are also paying for security during the trial. One of Guzman’s lawyers said that the government is being “hypocritical” for claiming that taxpayers shouldn’t be financing Guzman’s expenses while it is also unwilling to guarantee payment to private lawyers without legal issues. 

“The government is making it very difficult for the private lawyers in this case to come on,” said Michelle Gelernt, one of Guzman’s federally-appointed lawyers. “We hope this doesn’t intimidate them out of coming onto the case.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.