Verdugo Case Secret Leaves Questions on Conflict

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge said Thursday that a secret document submitted by federal prosecutors left him gravely concerned about potential conflicts of interest if the attorney for accused drug smuggler Rene Martin Verdugo is permitted to continue with the case.

In a hearing that raised as many questions as it answered, prosecutors nonetheless dropped their opposition to attorney Howard Frank remaining as defense lawyer for Verdugo, who federal investigators believe has information about the kidnap-slaying last year of U.S. drug agent Enrique S. Camarena.

Prosecutors earlier had sought Frank’s removal because he also represents Victor Vidal, a convicted drug smuggler who is cooperating with authorities and is the key witness against Verdugo in a marijuana smuggling case.

U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving granted Frank’s request to delay proceedings in the case for a week. Irving said he would probe further into the potential conflict if Frank does not choose to drop out of the case before a hearing on March 7.


Irving said the secret document deals with possible dangers to witnesses and court personnel if he interviews six Mexicans who Verdugo claims abducted him in Mexico last month and pushed him across the border into the hands of U.S. authorities. The judge said Frank was not named in the document but he otherwise steered clear of describing its contents.

“Allowing Mr. Frank to remain as attorney for Mr. Verdugo risks, in my opinion, a taint of all future proceedings,” Irving said. The possibility of a conflict “creates a serious risk of undermining public confidence in the system,” he added.

Frank said both Verdugo and Vidal want him to continue to represent them.