Former drug-dealing clients who Baltimore attorney Kenneth Ravenell helped keep out of prison will take the stand against him at his racketeering trial in U.S. District Court, which kicked off Tuesday with opening statements.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise told jurors that Ravenell, regarded by his peers as a brilliant lawyer, used his knowledge of law enforcement tactics to keep longtime client Richard Byrd one step ahead of authorities.
The relationship was a “more than 20-year criminal partnership” that made both millions of dollars, Wise said, calling Byrd Ravenell’s “goose that laid the golden egg.” Now, he and other members of his operation are expected to testify about how Ravenell aided the drug organization for years.
Another former drug dealing client from a separate operation will also testify against Ravenell, Wise said.
The defense is scheduled to give opening arguments on Wednesday. Ravenell is facing charges of racketeering conspiracy and money laundering, and, along with his former attorney Joshua Treem and private investigator Sean Gordon, obstruction of justice.
Thousands of pages of records, connected to months of legal battling in the case that took place outside of public view, were unsealed by a federal judge Tuesday.
Much of the sealed records had to do with Byrd’s role in the case. Byrd is also central to the charges against Treem and Gordon, who went to visit Byrd in an Arizona jail in September 2017, in a meeting that was secretly recorded by the government, the records show.
Byrd is serving 26 years in federal prison after being convicted in 2017 of running a drug trafficking ring.
Ravenell first represented Byrd in an early 1990s armed drug-dealing case in Baltimore that resulted in a five-year prison sentence. At some point after that, prosecutors have said, Byrd emerged as a major nationwide dealer of marijuana, and the indictment recounts a series of interactions between Ravenell and members of Byrd’s operation.
Byrd — anticipating that Treem and Gordon were being sent to “take him off the board,” or get him to sign an affidavit absolving Ravenell of wrongdoing —wore reading glasses equipped with a video and audio recording device. Months later, Treem sent a letter to a federal judge memorializing the meeting, which prosecutors say falsely represented what had occurred.
In a transcript of a previously sealed hearing made public Tuesday, Wise said Byrd has no cooperation agreement with the government and that the government asked him to record the meeting with Treem and Gordon.
Byrd has been seeking to try to get his sentence overturned, arguing in part that his lawyers had allegiances to Ravenell and didn’t look out for his best interests.
Defense attorneys have contended in pre-trial filings that prosecutors overreached, wrongly intruding on Treem’s duties as a defense attorney. They contend that Treem did nothing wrong, and that authorities had no reason to believe he would when they recorded the meeting.
“If it is deemed to be okay to secretly invade and surreptitiously undermine the work that a defense lawyer is obliged to undertake on behalf of a client, then surely it will become normal and routine, part of the prosecutor’s playbook,” the defense team wrote in one filing. “That cannot happen if we are to have a functioning and fair criminal justice system.”
Judge Liam O’Grady, a member of the federal bench in Virginia who is overseeing the case, denied those motions in rulings made public for the first time Tuesday.
“The evidence shows that Treem had knowledge and an intent to carry out a criminal act,” O’Grady ruled in October.
Ravenell was a former partner at the law firm of Murphy Falcon and Murphy, and Wise said that Byrd and Ravenell treated the firm “like Byrd’s bank,” moving drug money through the ledgers. No one else from the firm is charged with a crime.
Wise said Byrd came forward with information about Ravenell after Ravenell left him hanging on a multi-million investment in the MGM National Harbor casino. There was no paperwork for the deal, which had been “layered through two intermediaries,” Wise said.
“He said he wouldn’t cooperate against Ravenell because he thought Ravenell would manage his investment in the MGM casino and provide for Byrd’s children,” Wise said. “It was only later that year when it became clear to Byrd that wasn’t happening ... that he changed his mind and decided to do the right thing and tell the truth about what he and Ravenell had been doing all along.”
The trial is expected to last a month or more.