- Associated Press - Monday, September 29, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - Three defense lawyers bribed a court insider to steer clients to them, shelling out over $40,000 to get recommended to arrestees with means as they awaited arraignment, prosecutors said Monday.

By paying off a worker for a nonprofit group that interviews new defendants, the lawyers and a paralegal working for them “undermined the confidence in our criminal justice system,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.

Attorneys Jae Lee, Dwane Smith and Benjamin Yu and paralegal Jose Nunez pleaded not guilty Monday to bribery and conspiracy charges, finding themselves on the other side of the legal equation in a Manhattan courthouse in which they are familiar faces.

Yu is “somebody you see every day in this courthouse,” said his lawyer, Andres Aranda. “He works very hard for his clients.”

The worker hasn’t been charged, and Vance wouldn’t name the person, saying that he or she is a cooperating witness in the continuing investigation. The nonprofit group, the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

To help keep the wheels of justice turning in the city’s busy courts, the court system hires the Criminal Justice Agency to interview people awaiting arraignment, gathering information to help a judge decide how likely they are to return to court if released. That can entail asking about arrestees’ jobs.

The bribed worker used interviews with people facing low-level charges to suss out which defendants likely could pay a lawyer, instead of having one appointed, prosecutors said. Then the worker suggested over 100 arrestees hire Yu, Smith or Lee in order to get their cases called faster, according to prosecutors, who said Yu, Smith and Nunez told the worker they had ties to a court clerk and a police officer who could hasten the process of getting before a judge.

Vance said it’s unclear whether any of the defendants, who were facing such charges as drunken driving and small-scale drug possession, actually got their cases expedited. None has been charged because it’s not clear they knew anything about the alleged bribery, he said.

The lawyers paid the worker as much as $1,000 per case, roughly doubling the person’s salary, Vance said.

“When I make money, you make money, right?” Smith told the employee in a recorded phone call, according to prosecutors. “.I’m careful on my end, you be careful on your end, and we communicate about how not, you know, how not to get into trouble.”

Smith’s lawyer, Daniel Hupert, noted that the charges would compromise Smith’s ability to practice law, representing a significant penalty in itself.


Follow Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.

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