A federal government motion filed Monday raises the question of whether former federal prosecutor Chuck Banks has a conflict of interest in being one of the attorneys for Ted Suhl in his federal bribery trial set to begin July 12.
The motion said one of the government’s witnesses in the case, Steven Jones, a former legislator who pleaded guilty to taking bribes from Suhl while a state Human Services Department officia;, had talked to Banks about legal representation before he took Suhl as a client.
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Jones and a West Memphis man, Philip Carter, are serving prison sentences for guilty pleas in taking bribes to help Suhl’s business — a residential treatment center for youth in Randolph County once known as the Lord’s Ranch and also community-based services. They received millions over the years in state-funneled money, most supply by the federal Medicaid program. Said the motion:
On June 9, 2016, during a pretrial interview with Mr. Jones, the government learned that in early 2012 Mr. Jones sought and obtained a legal consultation for representation in this matter from Charles Banks, one of the attorneys currently representing the defendant. Mr. Jones’s legal consultation with Mr. Banks occurred prior to Mr. Banks’s representation of the defendant for this matter. According to Mr. Jones, he and Mr. Banks met twice for consultation. During the consultation(s), Mr. Jones revealed his involvement in the bribery scheme to Mr. Banks. At one of the meetings, Mr. Jones attended with another attorney, Michael Booker, who ultimately represented Mr. Jones for the duration of his criminal case. Mr. Banks and Mr. Jones were unable to agree on a fee, and Mr. Banks informed Mr. Jones that he had been approached by another individual in connection with the bribery scheme for which Mr. Jones was seeking representation. Mr. Jones did not retain Mr. Banks and Mr. Banks subsequently was retained by the defendant. Mr. Jones was unaware of Mr. Banks’s representation of the defendant until Mr. Jones saw Mr. Banks at Mr. Jones’s sentencing hearing. Mr. Banks continues to represent the defendant. It is the government’s understanding that, to date, neither Steven Jones nor the defendant have executed waivers of their right to counsel free of a conflict of interest. Accordingly, the government now respectfully moves the Court to conduct a hearing to address this conflict of interest.
The government said Jones could be cross-examined by Banks or co-counsel and Banks possesses information that could be “significantly harmful” to Jones. The motion suggests a conflict arises in Banks’ duty to vigorously defend Suhl but also to protect Jones’ confidentiality. “Unless there is good cause to believe that no conflict of interest is likely to arise, the court must take appropriate measures,” the pleading said.
I’d guess this wrinkle holds the potential to delay the case.
I’ve called Banks for comment. Suhl is also represented by the high-powered Washington firm of Williams and Connolly. The lead lawyer is Rob Cary, who has significant experience in defending high-profile white collar defendants. He wrote a book about the successful defense of the government’s prosecution of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
Judge Billy Roy Wilson responded today with a letter to Banks:
I would appreciate it if you would respond as quickly as possible to the Prosecution’s Motion for Hearing Regarding Conflict of Interest (Doc. No. 52). As you know, the Prosecution may ultimately ask that you be squashed in this case. Of course, I have no idea about the extent of the conflict or, in fact, whether there is an actual conflict or not.
In any event, I would like to get the issues joined as soon as possible.
Shortly after, Banks responded with an objection to a hearing. He said his representation of Suhl had been a matter of public record for four years. He said no one had raised a possbility of conflict or that any discussions he’d had with Jones had not been kept confidential. He continued:
There have been no plans, discussions, or even inferences that would suggest that this counsel would present any facts in this trial that were derived from the conversation, which has been kept privileged and confidential.
It is unclear what protection that the United States is trying to provide to Jones by a hearing. It seems almost that the DOJ lawyers are trying to create a conflict that doesn’t exist, or refuse to believe that prospective client discussions would be afforded privilege and kept confidential
Banks said he was sure Suhl would waive any conflict.