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Mobtown Beat

Attorney Stanley Needleman Sentenced to Prison

Prosecutor at hearing alludes to facts not made public

Photo: Rarah, License: N/A

Rarah

Stanley Needleman in 2008


Federal District Judge Roger W. Titus sentenced former Baltimore defense attorney Stanley H. Needleman to a year and a day in federal prison and fined him $10,000 on Dec. 15 after a nearly three-hour hearing in which lawyers and former judges from Baltimore vouched for Needleman’s good character.

“I always found him completely honest,” retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana Levitz told the court, which was packed with several dozen Needleman supporters. “I remember thinking how difficult it must be for him to be so zealous an advocate for such difficult clients. His total commitment, his total involvement—the practice of law was, for him, his sole focus.”

Other prominent character witnesses included Andrew Graham, a Baltimore lawyer who previously represented former Baltimore and State Police Commissioner Ed Norris; William Purpura, a prominent defense attorney; and Joseph F. Murphy, a former Maryland Court of Appeals judge now with Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin, and White. The witnesses spoke of Needleman’s honesty and his dedication to his clients and family. “For him, the most severe punishment is . . . the loss of his license to practice law,” Murphy said, just before his voice seemed to break. “It doesn’t excuse what occurred. It makes it all the sadder.”

Criminal charges against Needleman were unsealed on Aug. 29, four months after his home and office were searched by IRS and Drug Enforcement Administration agents. They found more than $1.1 million in two safes in his home, according to a charging document (The News Hole, Aug. 30). (City Paper erroneously reported on the News Hole blog on Dec. 15 that more than $500,000 had been found in a safe in Needleman’s Mount Vernon office.) Needleman pleaded guilty to tax evasion and “structuring financial transactions” on Sept. 1. He agreed to forfeit nearly $500,000, plus pay any back taxes and civil penalties owed to the IRS and Maryland state treasury (The News Hole, Sept. 1). He was disbarred and faced up to 15 years in prison.

As Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein watched from the spectators’ gallery, prosecutors asked for a two-year sentence; Needleman’s lawyers, Kenneth Ravenell and former judge William H. “Billy” Murphy, asked the court for probation. Going into the hearing, Murphy had told a City Paper reporter, “I don’t make predictions, but if he were a horse I’d bet on him.” Needleman’s friends and family were plainly shocked by the prison sentence, which appears to be based on more than what is in the public record.

After Needleman’s guilty plea three months ago, DEA Special Agent in Charge Ava Cooper-Davis called the investigation “a long-term, highly complex effort.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson continued on that theme during the sentencing hearing. “This was not an ordinary tax-evasion case,” she told the court in arguing for an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines that can be allowed in especially complex or intricate cases of tax evasion. She went on to detail the difficulty government agents had in tracking Needleman’s money, much of which he took in cash payments from clients. “He took painstaking steps to make sure he was accounting to the IRS enough money so he wouldn’t be suspected,” Wilkinson said. Judge Titus ruled against her motion.

An attachment to Needleman’s plea agreement says that in the years 2005 through 2009, he claimed to earn about half a million dollars each year. In reality he was taking in more than $800,000.

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor said the case began more than two years ago with “a lot of rumor and innuendo . . . about bags of cash and where they were going and how he was accounting for it.” She also said a witness came forward “back in 2007.”

Investigators from the DEA and the IRS reviewed Needleman’s income-tax filings and interviewed former clients, who often told the investigators that they had paid Needleman more in cash than Needleman had deposited in his bank accounts or claimed on his tax returns. Prosecutors were eventually able to track much of Needleman’s cash because he kept a handwritten ledger next to his bed, Wilkinson said. The ledger, which the prosecutor briefly flashed on a screen visible to the court’s spectators, was never out of Needleman’s possession and was not reviewed by anyone at his law offices, prosecutors said. But Needleman’s own accounting stopped abruptly in October 2010.

“This is not a case of need, this is a case of greed,” Wilkinson told the judge. “I know that the court is aware that there are very serious facts in this case about which these character witnesses have no knowledge.” (A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed that those facts are not part of the available public record in the case.)

“A lawyer is not allowed to provide financial assistance to a client,” Wilkinson continued, “but we know he spent $30,000 to bond out a client—one he knew was involved with very serious criminal activities.”

Jose Morales, a client of Needleman’s, was mysteriously set free on a $30,000 cash bond on July 25, 2008 (The News Hole, Aug. 1, 2008), only to be caught soon after in Texas, trying to charter a jet to fly back to Baltimore with six kilos of cocaine.

Morales told federal investigators that he was muling the kilos in order to pay back a bail bond—and that Needleman was involved in criminal activity. In open court on March 8, 2010, a federal prosecutor in Texas derided Morales for lying about his former lawyer, according to the hearing transcript, which did not specify the allegations against Needleman (The News Hole, April 14). Morales, a career criminal with arson, drug dealing, identity theft, and many vehicle thefts on his record, was sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison for the drug crime (“The End of Impunity,” Mobtown Beat, March 17, 2010).

In an unusual move, federal prosecutors charged Morales in another drug conspiracy in September, bringing him in from prison in Allenwood, Pa., to face the vague charges in a Greenbelt courtroom. Though the conduct allegedly occurred in and around Baltimore, the case is being heard by Roger W. Titus, the same judge overseeing Needleman’s case. (All the federal judges in Baltimore recused themselves from Needleman’s case.)

Citing alleged violations of his right against self-incrimination, Morales’ lawyers have filed a motion to suppress statements Morales gave “to any local, state and/or federal officers, including any government attorneys, on or about October 13, 2010 and February 16, 2011,” when he was interviewed in prison. The Morales drug-conspiracy trial, now scheduled for June 2012, was postponed in part, according to a Dec. 5 order from Titus, “due to the unusual and complex nature of this case, the nature of its prosecution, the existence of novel questions of fact and law.”

Morales’ lawyer, Timothy Joseph Sullivan, declined to speak to City Paper about the case.

At the time of his 2008 cocaine arrest, Morales had been facing multiple theft charges in Baltimore Circuit Court, along with other charges in Howard and Anne Arundel counties. Needleman was representing Morales on the Baltimore cases when Robert Long, one of Morales’ longtime accomplices, agreed to testify against Morales. He was murdered 13 days later (“With Impunity,” Feature, June 11, 2008).

Baltimore homicide detectives never interviewed Morales in their investigation of Long’s death. They eventually charged Demetrius Smith, a west-side drug dealer, with the murder, saying Smith killed Long for stealing a stash of heroin worth $7,000. Smith was convicted in January 2010 (“Anatomy of a Murder Trial,” Feature, Feb. 24, 2010) and sentenced to life in prison (“Run-on Sentence,” Mobtown Beat, March 31, 2010). Needleman, who had no part in that case, showed up in court to hear the guilty verdict.

Federal investigators reinvestigated the Long murder last summer, sources say, and Smith’s lawyer is preparing a motion for a new trial in that case. A federal law-enforcement officer interviewed Smith in prison last spring and contacted members of his family about the case. “The DEA got involved because of other people who [were] involved in it,” says George Smith, Demetrius’ father. The same agent who contacted Smith also investigated Needleman. He declined to comment on the case and referred a reporter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which also declined to comment.

“We don’t confirm or deny investigations,” Baltimore U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Marcia Murphy said in an e-mail to City Paper. “Sorry.”

Needleman remains free pending an assignment to a federal prison. His lawyers said they will suggest one to Titus on Dec. 19, and Needleman would be expected to report to prison sometime after that.

At his sentencing hearing, Needleman asked Titus for mercy. “If I had the power to leap backwards and freeze frame the hands of time, I would,” he told the judge in his clear, deep voice. “Since April of this year, I am an emotional and intellectual zombie.

“Being a lawyer invigorated my very being as a human being,” Needleman continued. “Now as you look at me, I dwell in the abyss of ruination.”

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