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Ex-Justice officials face drug charges


WASHINGTON -- In what officials said was a striking demonstration of the corrupting influence of drugs on the legal system, a former senior Justice Department official who once led efforts to extradite leaders of the Cali cocaine cartel in Colombia was indicted yesterday on charges of helping the cartel in a criminal conspiracy.

Michael Abbell, who was one of 62 people accused in a Miami indictment of participating in a cocaine-smuggling conspiracy, was a section chief in the Justice Department's criminal division during the Reagan administration's war on drugs in the early 1980s. Five other lawyers, including two other former Justice Department officials, were named in the indictment.

Kendall B. Coffey, the U.S. attorney for southern Florida, called the case "the single most significant prosecution in history against the Cali cartel," which he said had been responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine imported to the United States since 1984.

Mr. Coffey said Mr. Abbell and the other lawyers named in the indictment were part of a "network of protection the cartel had engineered." Two of the lawyers who were charged yesterday, Joel Rosenthal and Donald Ferguson, are former federal prosecutors in Florida.

But it is the accusation against Mr. Abbell, whose job in the Justice Department had been to extradite the captains of the Cali cartel and others to the United States, that provides the most pointed example of how some former law enforcement officials may use the knowledge they gained as government lawyers to benefit the people they once tried put in jail.

Mr. Abbell, a Harvard-trained lawyer, worked for the Justice Department for more than 17 years. From 1981 until he left the department for private practice in 1984, he was head of the criminal division's international affairs office, which sought custody of international fugitives so they could be tried in the United States. In that post, Justice Department officials said, he had gained enormous knowledge in how the government pursued international drug suspects.

Six months later, he began giving legal advice to Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, one of two men reputed to have founded the Cali cartel. He helped Mr. Rodriguez fight extradition from Spain to the United States, where he faced indictments in New York and California.

At the time, Mr. Abbell had sought and obtained a formal ruling from the Justice Department that it would not be a conflict of interest for him to participate in the case. The U.S. effort to take custody of Mr. Rodriguez ended when the Spanish judge ruled he should go to trial in Colombia. Mr. Abbell then appeared in a Cali courtroom to advise Mr. Rodriguez, who was acquitted of the Colombian charges.

In yesterday's indictment, Mr. Abbell is charged with actions designed to obstruct the prosecution of Mr. Rodriguez and his brother, another reputed leader of the Cali cartel.

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