Veterans of Enron, Deepwater Horizon cases prepare to try accused Baltimore cops

In his still relatively brief career as a lawyer, Leo Wise has taken part in some of the most important legal work of the last 15 years: The Justice Department case against Big Tobacco, the prosecution of Enron, the creation of an office to root out misconduct in Congress.

Now the assistant U.S. attorney is focusing on wrongdoing in official Maryland. His public corruption unit, based in Baltimore, has led the federal prosecution of a smuggling ring at the state-run Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore, state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks and, in a case scheduled to go to trial this month, the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.

Wise, 40, keeps a photo in his office of Robert Mueller presenting him with an award. Colleagues say it’s a fitting keepsake for a lawyer who has been compared to the former FBI director for his calculating, slow-burn investigations.

Wise and co-counsel Derek Hines, 31 — whose own experience includes investigating fraudulent claims in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — have spent the last two years pursuing the rogue police squad. Members are accused of shaking down criminal suspects and private citizens; six have pleaded guilty.

“It’s not surprising,” said Colleen Conry, a former federal prosecutor who has worked with Wise. “He’s sort of Mueller-like in that really disciplined and methodical, don’t-get-ahead-of-yourself, building-block approach — and it pays off.”

Federal grand juries indicted eight members of the gun task force on racketeering charges. The two remaining defendants are scheduled to stand trial next week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Wise and Hines “are like the terminator,” said one defense attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s involved in an ongoing case with them. “They just never stop coming.”

Another attorney described Wise and Hines as “hardliners,” trial lawyers who pursue stern sentences and prosecute even small-time crooks.

“Anybody who committed wrongdoing, they’re going to search them out, no matter how limited their part may be,” said the attorney, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity amid an ongoing case.

Defense attorneys call them the Twin Towers. Wise is 6-foot-4; Hines is 6-foot-6.

Wise, raised in northern New Jersey, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He still remembers the lottery-winning rush of being accepted to Harvard Law School in 2000.

Four years later, he was 27 and working in Washington for the tobacco litigation team of the Justice Department. The federal government had sued Big Tobacco, claiming cigarette manufacturers misled smokers about the risks and deceptively promoted “light cigarettes.”

Wise found himself tasked with questioning a smart and hostile witness: Brennan Dawson, the former spokeswoman for the Tobacco Institute who inspired the spin doctor of the 2005 film “Thank You for Smoking.”

Wise was one year out of law school. “I was petrified,” he said.

A federal judge found Big Tobacco had deceived Americans about the effects of smoking. The judge ordered tobacco companies to stop labeling cigarettes "low tar," "light" or "mild.”

Wise was hired into the criminal fraud section of the Justice Department and dispatched to the Enron Task Force. Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were charged with fraud and accused of artificially inflating stock prices before the company’s infamous meltdown in 2001.

Wise flew to Houston to question Skilling’s stockbroker. Skilling was convicted of securities fraud, conspiracy and insider trading. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Wise was 30 years old and living out of suitcases, sometimes flying to three cities in one week to prepare witnesses. He traveled to Denver for the 2007 insider trading case against Joseph Nacchio, the CEO of Qwest Communications International Inc., a massive telecommunications carrier. Nacchio was accused of concealing the company’s worsening finances before its stock plunged from $60 to $1 per share.

Wise worked with Conry on the case. She was 16 years older than Wise and nicknamed him “Doogie Howser.”

“He was always so young for what he was doing,” she said.

The next year, a bribery scandal in Washington led the House of Representatives to create the Office of Congressional Ethics. At 31 years old, Wise was hired as the founding director. He agreed to serve through a two-year Congress. Monday mornings, he delivered notices to members under investigation. Wise faced shouts, insults, orders to “Get out!”

“In a weird way, I felt like we were doing our job,” he said. “This wasn’t a popularity contest.”

Still, the trial lawyer wanted to return to the courtroom. He applied to the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, and soon received a phone call from then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein.

“Obviously, I knew his qualifications. I was surprised that he was willing to give up a high-paying, high-profile job in Washington to be a line prosecutor in Baltimore,” Rosenstein said. “He really wanted to be a trial prosecutor.”

Wise began work in the office’s public corruption unit in 2010.

Hines, from Lancaster, Pa., graduated from the Villanova University School of Law the next year.

By September 2012, he was working for the law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia. The firm’s chairman, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, was named by a federal judge to investigate fraudulent damage claims over the BP oil spill.

The rig Deepwater Horizon caught fire and exploded in April 2010, killing 11 men and spewing 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. BP had established a $20 billion fund to pay people and business damaged by the spill. Allegations emerged of fraudulent claims. Freeh and his team flew to New Orleans to investigate.

“There were strip clubs in New Orleans that were getting paid multiple millions of dollars because of money lost in the spill,” Hines said. “We found this pervasive corruption and fraud.”

Hines figured he would be there 60 days. He stayed for two years.

“We were looking at a lot of very high-dollar claims that were very complex,” Freeh told The Baltimore Sun. “I was very impressed to see a young associate handle himself that well.”

Hines returned to Philadelphia and was sent to Montana to represent the Chippewa Cree American Indian tribe. Hines bought cowboy boots and a Chevrolet truck. While there, he oversaw the contentious ouster of the tribal chairman. He was required to present accusations of neglect and misconduct during a public meeting. An angry crowd shouted at him as he read.

“He had some tough skin and he kept his collective poise,” said LeAnn Montes, the tribe’s attorney general.

The tribal council removed the chairman, but he later won re-election.

Hines left in January 2016 and joined the narcotics unit of the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore. He volunteered to help Wise as the police corruption case began.

Wise is assisting in the prosecution of Oaks. The Baltimore Democrat is accused of taking cash bribes from an FBI informant. He was charged in April with fraud.

Wise and two other assistant U.S. attorneys brought the biggest racketeering case in Maryland history. In October 2016, they charged 80 people — inmates, prison guards, civilians — in a scheme to smuggle heroin, tobacco, cellphones and pornography into the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County. More than 60 defendants have pleaded guilty.

Wise and Hines won indictments last year against 11 men — eight Baltimore cops, two civilians, and one Philadelphia officer — in the Gun Trace Task Force case.

The task force was an elite plainclothes squad deployed to rid Baltimore of illegal guns. In 2016, they claimed to seize 130 weapons.

They also robbed drug dealers of cash, cocaine and heroin. They cheated on their overtime pay; some billed the city while vacationing. They swore out false search warrants and forged reports to cover their tracks.

Det. Momodu Gondo has admitted to running interference for a million-dollar heroin ring in Northeast Baltimore. Det. Jemell Rayam has admitted to helping one drug dealer rob a rival. The squad leader, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, has admitted to re-selling prescription drugs looted in the 2015 riots.

Former leader Sgt. Thomas Allers has admitted to robbing a suspected drug dealer of $10,000. The suspect was gunned down outside his grandmother’s house over the missing cash.

The campaign of robbery, extortion and overtime fraud stretched back years. In fiscal year 2016, they collected more than $300,000 in overtime pay.

The officers initially pleaded not guilty. But as Wise and Hines amassed evidence against them, they began to flip. One by one, officers admitted to robberies and implicated others in the squad.

Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor have pleaded not guilty. They are scheduled for trial beginning Jan. 22.

Wise and Hines declined to discuss the case.

University at Buffalo political scientist Frank Zagare has studied the interplay between prosecutors and defendants.

“A common strategy of prosecuting attorneys is to try to induce one of the conspirators to testify against his or her compatriots by offering a recommendation for leniency,” he wrote in the 1984 study “Game Theory.” He called the strategy “dealing up.”

“Once the low-level defendants are implicated, they may be granted immunity to induce them to testify against the next level,” Zagare wrote.

He told The Baltimore Sun that Mueller is employing the same methods in his investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to sway the 2016 election. Mueller and his team have charged four people.

In Baltimore, Wise and Hines continue to build their case: interviewing witnesses, filing court documents. On Friday, a bail bondsman admitted in court to selling drugs for the corrupt cops, bringing the prosecutors one more guilty plea.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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