Sharansky’s Wife Is Barred as Witness in Wallach Trial
The racketeering trial of San Francisco lawyer E. Robert Wallach erupted in controversy Tuesday when the wife of freed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky showed up as a character witness for Wallach and the judge barred her from testifying before today.
Leonard Garment, a Washington attorney and friend of the Sharanskys and Wallach, protested angrily in court that the pair had flown 14 hours from Jerusalem while Avital Sharansky’s mother lay near death in a coma in Israel.
But U.S. District Judge Richard Owen, citing objections by federal prosecutors to Avital Sharansky’s appearance as a witness, said that “I will not be rushed” to make a decision on whether she will testify. Promising to rule this morning, Owen left the Sharanskys sitting outside the courtroom.
(Tuesday night, however, United Press International reported that the Sharanskys had flown home to Israel. Garment, who earlier had picked up the couple at John F. Kennedy International Airport and brought them directly to the federal courthouse, said they had decided to return to be with Avital Sharansky’s mother.)
At a preliminary hearing without the jury, Avital Sharansky had told the court that she intended to tell jurors she believed that Wallach, without receiving any fee, had helped achieve her husband’s celebrated release from a Soviet concentration camp in 1985 by lobbying officials of the Ronald Reagan Administration on her behalf to pressure the Soviets to free him.
Chief prosecutor Baruch Weiss objected to this testimony, which could boost Wallach’s chances with a New York jury, as “too prejudicial and too speculative” for a character witness to give.
Character witnesses generally are friends or neighbors who have known a defendant for years and wish to vouch for the defendant’s “good character” or standing in the community, he noted.
Wallach’s defense attorney, Gary P. Naftalis, argued that Avital Sharansky fit that category because she has known and dealt with Wallach for several years.
Wallach, who testified on his own behalf Monday and resumed his testimony Tuesday, has told of frequent visits to Israel and a long-time interest in Israeli affairs. He said that he performed a wide range of legal services for Wedtech Corp. in return for large fees that the government claims were paid to him for using his influence with former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.
Wallach insisted that others spent much more time than he did lobbying high Reagan Administration officials to obtain government contracts for the fledgling New York defense firm, which now is defunct.
Wallach, 55, and two associates are on trial for allegedly defrauding Wedtech of nearly $2 million from 1982 to 1985. Wallach specifically is charged with illegally obtaining $525,000 from the company in return for his promise to use his influence with Meese, a long-time friend and former law school classmate at UC Berkeley.
Upon conviction, the three defendants each would be subject to maximum punishment of 20 years in prison and fines totaling millions of dollars. For most of the period in question, Meese was Reagan’s White House counselor before his appointment as attorney general.