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Holdout Juror Means Mistrial for Silberman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a single juror holding out for acquittal in Richard T. Silberman’s money-laundering case, a federal judge declared a mistrial Friday on the central charges that the San Diego financier laundered cash he believed was drug money.

Silberman, who was a top aide to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., had been convicted Thursday of violating a federal currency law. He could draw as long as 10 years in federal prison for that conviction, though new federal sentencing guidelines suggest a term of one to five years is likely.

U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving, who declared the mistrial on the other counts, sent Silberman back to jail without bail Friday to await formal sentencing, on Sept. 25.

Citing Silberman’s disappearance to Las Vegas and purported suicide attempt in February as evidence that the prominent businessman could be a flight risk, Irving had ordered Silberman into custody after the guilty verdict Thursday on the one count. On Friday, the judge stuck to that decision, saying he remained “troubled” by the “incident in Las Vegas.”

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Silberman, 61, who is married to San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding, stood trial on seven counts. He is accused of laundering $300,000 that an undercover FBI agent purportedly characterized as Colombian drug proceeds.

When he was arrested in April, 1989, at a San Diego hotel, Silberman already had done two laundering deals and was negotiating to do a third with the undercover agent, who had posed as a front man for Colombian drug lords, prosecutors alleged.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Charles F. Gorder Jr. said Friday that he definitely plans to retry Silberman on the unresolved charges. Lead defense attorney James J. Brosnahan said he would appeal the conviction.

Almost all of the jurors, who deliberated for six days, hurriedly left the downtown San Diego federal courthouse without speaking to reporters. But foreman John T. Uliasz, 38, a Santee nurse, said the deadlock left the panel “extremely frustrated” and urged the government to seek a second trial.

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Uliasz also said, however, that the verdict shows “the system needs a change. Things are getting too complicated for 12 people to agree on any one thing, almost.”

Brosnahan said that “any jury is going to have a lot of trouble in this case, because of the way it was done.” The case evolved from an FBI sting operation, and, Brosnahan said, “It’s not a real crime.”

Golding also said the government ought to reconsider, saying that Silberman “is a man who has never done anything against the law.” She added, “We have a lot of real criminals out in the streets.”

The first deal in the case was a November, 1988, exchange of $100,000 for stock in a subsidiary of Silberman’s financially troubled gold-mining firm, Yuba Natural Resources. The second was a February, 1989, swap of $200,000 for U.S. Treasury bonds.

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Silberman maintained that the first deal was a legitimate stock sale. He testified that he was coerced into the second by threats aimed at his family by a government informer, Robert Benjamin.

The jury deadlocked, 11 to 1 for conviction, on the three charges at the heart of the trial, two counts of money-laundering and one of conspiring to launder money, foreman Uliasz said. It also deadlocked, 10 to 1, for conviction, with one juror undecided, on two other counts, alleged violations of federal currency laws, he said.

According to jurors who did speak to reporters, the lone holdout was Mark E. Powers, a San Diego machinist, who could not be persuaded to budge on a key issue in the case--whether Silberman believed the cash was drug money. Reached at his home, Powers said, “I really don’t have anything to say to the media at this time.”

The undecided juror, Rosalie Thoms, a San Diego businesswoman, also declined to comment at the courthouse and did not return a phone call later Friday to her home.

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The panel unanimously found Thursday that Silberman was guilty of structuring a transaction to avoid the paper work that federal law requires for any cash transaction over $10,000.

It found him guilty of directing a scheme to break the $100,000 supplied in the first deal by the FBI agent, Peter Ahearn--who posed as a front man for Colombian drug lords--into sums of less than $10,000 for eventual transfer to Switzerland without records.

The seventh count in the case, which is Irving’s to decide, is a criminal forfeiture charge through which prosecutors are seeking the return of the stocks, bonds and cash in the case. It was unclear when Irving might rule on that charge.

The bulk of the evidence at the trial case came in the form of Silberman’s own words, captured on tape. Prosecutors played hour after hour of secretly recorded phone calls and meetings in which Silberman, Ahearn and others cryptically discussed the two deals.

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Many of the tapes were gathered under a federal law--used for the first time--that allows agents to wiretap even public pay phones. In a decision that experts in criminal law had been awaiting as a test case, Irving, the first judge in the nation to rule on the novel “roving wiretap” law, found a few months before the trial that it was legal.

Several times, the tapes captured references Ahearn made to Silberman discussing the source of the cash. At one meeting with Silberman, Ahearn said that the “money came from a bunch of . . . Colombian drug lords,” according to the tapes.

Silberman, who testified for two days, said that Ahearn led him to believe that the money was from Mexican investors who sought confidentiality in their financial dealings.

“I didn’t find him credible,” jury foreman Uliasz said of Silberman’s testimony.

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Silberman “contradicted himself a lot,” said juror Aristotle Montano, 38, of San Diego, a U.S. Mail letter sorter. “His testimony was sometimes . . . I felt he should not have said things in telephone conversations, for example.”

“I think the evidence, and everything in the evidence, showed--after we discussed it--that he was willing to do things, whether it was money coming from anything, he was willing to do it,” Montano said.

When the jury first began discussing the case, “three to five people were undecided,” Montano said.

The panel reviewed the counts, in order, and in time it became clear that only Powers was not convinced that Silberman “knew specifically that it was drug money initially,” Uliasz said.

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The jury asked Irving Tuesday to explain when the crime of structuring--the breaking up of a financial transaction greater than $10,000 to avoid federal reporting laws--begins. After Irving provided further guidance, the guilty verdict on that count was returned, Uliasz said.

But no progress could be made on the other counts and jurors passed a note Thursday saying that they were deadlocked. Irving asked Friday morning whether further meetings would help, and Uliasz said no, after which the judge declared a mistrial on the remaining charges.

“People saw things differently,” Uliasz said, adding, “Nothing was black and white.”

Silberman’s purported suicide attempt during the trial never came up during the jury’s deliberations, Uliasz said. Irving had barred discussion of it during the trial, saying it was not relevant to a verdict.

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After Silberman disappeared Feb. 15 from San Diego, he was found two days later, unconscious, in a Las Vegas hotel room.

According to Golding, Silberman believed he could not get a fair trial before Irving, so he wrote a suicide note and tried to kill himself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Silberman cried when Golding took the stand at a special hearing Friday afternoon to plead with Irving that her husband remain free on bail pending sentencing. After he returned from Las Vegas, Silberman told her that the trip was not part of a plan to flee and added that “it was just not something he would do,” she said.

San Diego “is the community where he has spent his whole life,” Golding said. “Even when he was living in Sacramento,” while working as a top aide to Brown, “he came back to San Diego every weekend.”

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Silberman served as Brown’s chief of staff and transportation chief, among other posts.

Defense lawyer Brosnahan had said earlier in the day that it was “barbaric” to jail Silberman, who he said spent Thursday night by himself in a third-floor cell at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego.

By sending Silberman to jail immediately, Brosnahan said, Irving “made it clear how you feel about this case and Mr. Silberman. It was an act of force. You are a man of power, and you used it.”

Irving did not respond directly Friday to Brosnahan’s comments. He said again, as he did Thursday, that the law required him to send Silberman to jail unless there was clear proof there was no risk of flight.

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Testimony at the trial established that Silberman had traveled overseas extensively, had contacts in Europe and Canada and has or had assets in Switzerland, Irving said. Given those factors, as well as the Las Vegas trip, which Irving called “something less than normal behavior,” the judge said there was no choice but to keep Silberman in custody.

Irving set a July 23 hearing to discuss the next steps in the case.

He also set an Aug. 21 hearing to consider a defense request to throw out the entire case on the basis that it was outrageous for the government to have used informer Benjamin against Silberman. Benjamin is an eight-time convicted felon who is now in the federal witness protection program, according to prosecutors.

Four other men were indicted along with Silberman, two of whom have pleaded guilty in recent weeks, each to a single count of violating federal currency laws. The two other men, including reputed mobster Chris Petti, 63, of San Diego, who introduced Silberman to Aheran, are set to stand trial on Sept. 25--the same day Silberman is scheduled to be sentenced.

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