(CN) – Federal prosecutors were in damage-control mode in the 11th Circuit Wednesday, striving to keep convictions in place from a Miami cocaine trafficking investigation spearheaded by an FBI agent who has since been accused of corruption.
The trafficking case, now on appeal in the 11th Circuit’s Miami division, put fire safety inspector Henry Lee Bryant and his associate Octavius McLendon in federal prison in 2012 on charges that they tried to moonlight as cocaine distributors.
The two men had been the target of a sting operation in which FBI agent Dante Jackson posed as a cocaine dealer and club owner, and recruited them as would-be drug transporters. The investigation came to fruition when undercover agents provided the unwitting duo with “sham” cocaine wrapped into bricks for delivery to Miami-area drop-off spots.
A Miami-Dade police officer was charged as well, for allegedly using his police cruiser to escort the cocaine runs.
For federal prosecutors, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. They amassed a small mountain of evidence, including undercover recordings of Bryant allegedly discussing the drop-off routes, cocaine prices and how to avoid getting caught.
But the convictions fell on looser footing when Jackson – the FBI agent – was accused of corruption in connection with a separate case involving the murder of a Georgia rapper, the appeals court documents say.
According to the documents, Jackson was accused of accepting jewelry, expensive sporting event tickets and monetary advances from Mani Chulpayev, a luxury-car rental don who allegedly helped the killers track down the victim. What’s more, Jackson – who had long known Chulpayev through his role as a confidential informant – allegedly sought to shield Chulpayev from being prosecuted in the murder case.
An attorney for Chulpayev told ABC News that Jackson had led Chulpayev to believe the gifts would be used for “law enforcement purposes.”
The murder charges against Chulpayev were dropped in 2015. Some statements that he made in local police interviews were deemed inadmissible in Georgia on account of the FBI agent’s purported interference.
Jackson, meanwhile, became the subject of an internal investigation by the Department of Justice Inspector General over the dealings with Chulpayev, according to the appellate documents. The investigation focused on Jackson’s conduct beginning in 2012, around the time the cocaine trafficking case was making its way through Florida trial court.
During the 11th Circuit proceedings Wednesday, McClendon’s publicly appointed attorney argued the jury never would have convicted McClendon on the cocaine distribution charges if they had known Jackson was embroiled in an alleged corruption scandal.
The attorney argued that the delay in the revelation of the corruption accusations amounted to a Brady violation for failure to timely disclose exculpatory evidence.
“The bottom line is that Jackson’s been thoroughly discredited,” McLendon’s attorney said, noting that Jackson would probably have been excluded from the trial had the corruption accusations been revealed beforehand.
U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan acknowledged the severity of the corruption claims against Jackson but reserved judgment on whether the cocaine convictions hinged on his testimony.
The controversy surrounding Jackson presented “horrible, horrible optics,” Jordan said.
“This is horrendous . . . the conduct that the agent was purportedly involved in,” he said.
The government’s legal team maintained that the undercover recordings would have produced convictions regardless of Jackson’s testimony.
“He certainly wasn’t necessary. The tapes came in. These were bad guys, betraying the public trust,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley told the 11th Circuit panel.
Shipley added that Jackson “has not been criminally charged in any form.”
The parties’ lawyers sparred over whether McLendon truly knew what was being transported in the bags that he and Bryant were dropping off around town. Met with some apparent skepticism from the appellate panel, McLendon’s lawyer asserted that the defendants were led to believe that the wrapped up bricks were not cocaine, but money to be laundered.
The issue of whether the defendants had full knowledge of the bags’ contents proved pivotal in the lower court’s decision on how to handle the convictions once the FBI agent corruption claims came to light.
Ruling on motions for a new trial, a federal judge in Florida found in 2017 that the former Miami-Dade policeman who allegedly escorted the cocaine runs deserved a new trial, in part because kilos of cocaine were referred to in code, as “T-shirts,” during a discussion with him about the cargo.
The judge reasoned that Jackson’s testimony at trial was key in explaining to the jury that this “T-shirt” discussion in actuality referred to cocaine. Given that Jackson would likely never have been on the stand to explain as much if the corruption claims against him had been out in the open, a material Brady violation was present with regard to the former Miami officer, the judge reasoned.
The one-time cop ended up entering into a deal with prosecutors in April 2017, under which he admitted to a single count: carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.
McLendon and Bryant were not granted the same consideration. They are serving out 15-year and 21-year sentences, respectively.