A federal judge expressed such dismay over what he considered a lenient plea agreement offered to a one-time legendary D.C. gangster that the former drug kingpin’s attorney pushed to have the judge recuse himself from the case.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon questioned the deal prosecutors offered to Cornell Jones in a federal tax evasion case, asking whether government attorneys doubted their ability to try the case and called it the most “extraordinary” agreement he had seen as a federal judge.
“I’ve never, in 13 years in this court, I have never seen a situation like this, where a person is admitting to having committed all of these crimes and they are pleading to one count,” Judge Leon said, according to transcripts of the court proceedings earlier this year. “Maybe [attorney Bernard] Grimm is like the greatest negotiator in history. Maybe that’s what’s going on here. Or maybe there’s a problem with your case that you’re trying to masquerade.”
According to a plea agreement, Jones, who spent 10 years in federal prison for drug trafficking in the District in the 1980s, would acknowledge his failure to pay taxes on $4.8 million of income earned from 2008 to 2013. Prosecutors offered an agreement that would allow him to plead guilty to one count of attempted tax evasion for money earned in 2010 and would shield his father and girlfriend from prosecution in the case. The income came from business deals arranged with individuals involved in the rentals and purchases of warehouses he owned, including sites that house the strip club Stadium Club and the concert venue Echostage.
But when Jones went to enter his guilty plea in May, Judge Leon said he would take a look at the agreement but “may or may not approve of it.”
The judge later peppered prosecutors with questions about the case and Jones’ prior conviction. At one point, he asked whether prosecutors had looked into Jones’ source of income to determine whether it was related to narcotics sales and whether the prosecutor handling the case had ever overseen a tax evasion case.
“You are obviously getting him to admit to a lot of stuff way beyond the scope of what he’s pleading to. Way beyond the scope. Which strikes me as potentially unfair,” Judge Leon said, according to transcripts. “But it raises the other question of if he’s admitting to doing all this stuff, failing to file income tax for all these years, evading taxes for all these years, what’s the point of the charge?”
Judge Leon last week denied the motion for recusal. A clerk from his chambers said he declined to comment on his decision.
What will come of the case — including whether the judge will accept the plea deal or Jones will still agree to plead guilty — is another matter.
“The clear signal from the Court is that Mr. Jones was getting a sweetheart deal from the government, which the Court was not happy about,” Jones attorney Bernard S. Grimm wrote in the motion for recusal filed late last month. “The Court’s dissatisfaction was evident from its questioning and the simple fact that it would not accept the plea. Mr. Jones’ only conclusion is that the Court would sentence him for all the crimes the Court believed Mr. Jones committed, not what he pled guilty to.”
The prosecutors handling the case defended their plea agreement offer, writing in court filings that it was standard policy and practice within the U.S. attorney’s office’s tax division and “that it was not an abuse of prosecutorial discretion warranting its rejection.” They also opposed Jones’ motion for Judge Leon’s recusal, arguing that the questions he raised over Jones’ prior employment, criminal history and finances “do not appear to manifest a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism.”
The U.S. attorney’s office and Jones’ attorney declined to comment on the ongoing case.
Charles Geyh, a law professor at Indiana University, said recusal requests are infrequent because attorneys often don’t want to risk upsetting a judge by making one.
For a recusal to be granted, a judge typically must have had some outside involvement that could affect a case. What a judge says during the course of a hearing isn’t generally enough to disqualify him or her from hearing a case, Mr. Geyh said.
“His reaction has to be so totally out of proportion that it simply is clear that the judge can’t be fair,” said Mr. Geyh, adding that he didn’t believe Judge Leon had appeared to have crossed that line in the Jones case. “It’s part of a judge’s job to decide not to sign plea deals that don’t do justice.”
This isn’t Jones’ first run-in with the law for his financial dealings since his release from prison. Last year, Jones was found guilty by a jury in D.C. Superior Court of misusing more than $300,000 in city grant money that his nonprofit Miracle Hands received from 2006 to 2008. The money was meant to build a job-training center for people with HIV and AIDS, but the District claimed the funds were used to renovate the Stadium Club.
In the tax evasion case, prosecutors say Jones should have owed more than $1.7 million in taxes on his income from 2008 to 2013 but were charging him only with losses from 2010, when he made $3.4 million and should have paid $1.2 million in taxes. The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia filed a criminal information that states that Jones hid the income by “using corporate funds to pay personal expenses; placing funds and property in the name of a corporate entity; and dealing extensively in cash.”
A statement of facts submitted by prosecutors details how Jones profited from his real estate and consulting deals. In 2009, Jones’ business WFJ Inc. entered into a contract to sell 2127 Queens Chapel Road NE, where the Stadium Club is located, and the real property at 2371 Queens Chapel NE. Through the business deal, Jones received “consulting payments” totaling $850,000 from the two individuals who bought the property, which was sold for $2.7 million in 2010. Court records do not name any of the people involved in the transactions with Jones, but developer Keith Forney and Baltimore-based nightclub owner James “Tru” Redding bought the property and ran the Stadium Club for several years until tax issues with the city led to a sale.
According to the plea deal, Jones never provided any consulting services to the buyers and the consulting contract was meant “to disguise the true purchase price” of the two properties.
Jones also benefited from selling another property at 2135 Queens Chapel Road NE, where he previously ran the nightclub D.C. Tunnel, and collected rent from a fourth warehouse that he rented out.
Given Judge Leon’s decision not to recuse himself, it is unclear whether Jones still intends to go forward with a guilty plea. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 23.