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Ravenell’s defense in racketeering trial centers on missing money

Ken Ravenell, Baltimore Attorney (The Daily Record/File photo)

The defense lawyer for Baltimore attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell posed a question to jurors in his opening statement Wednesday: If Ravenell received millions of dollars in drug proceeds from a marijuana-trafficking client, as the government claims, where is all that cash?

Ravenell, who is on trial in federal court this month on charges that he conspired with his client to support a massive drug distribution network, didn’t buy fur coats or a condo in the Caribbean, his lawyer, Lucius Outlaw, told the jury.

Federal investigators never found stacks of drug money at Ravenell’s law firm, or at the firm where he worked when he represented the client, convicted drug trafficker Richard Byrd, Outlaw said.

“How much of these millions in cash, visible cash dollars, is the government going to bring in here and show you?” Outlaw asked. “Spoiler alert: not one single cash dollar.”

The question will be a central one in the case, in which federal prosecutors say Ravenell received drug proceeds in exchange for helping Byrd evade law enforcement and laundered drug money through his former law firm, Murphy, Falcon & Murphy.

In his opening statement late Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise said the cash could be “gone or hidden.”

But Outlaw said that explanation shouldn’t convince the jury. Investigators pored over Ravenell’s tax and financial records and even investigated whether he was a gambler in an effort to find the money, but did not turn anything up, Outlaw said.

Outlaw also said that he and Ravenell’s other lawyers are working on the case pro bono.

The government’s first witness in the case is Byrd, who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in 2017, as he was serving a 26-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking.

Byrd matter-of-factly laid out the details of his drug operation in court and said that Ravenell served as a key adviser who provided “intel” that helped him evade law enforcement.

Byrd compared his relationship with Ravenell to that of Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and Tom Brady, the team’s former quarterback.

“He draws up the plays, and I run them,” Byrd said.

Ravenell, Byrd said, advised using separate phone lines for important members of the organization, removing batteries from cellphones when they weren’t being used and using white women as couriers for drug money because they were less likely to be considered suspicious at the airport.

Byrd said he met with Ravenell often so that they could strategize about how best to run the drug trafficking organization and package shipments of marijuana. Ravenell had a chart he used to track the major players in the organization and, if someone was arrested, to try and ensure they did not cooperate with law enforcement, Byrd said.

Ravenell would sometimes call to check whether “Mr. Ben and Mr. Franklin” would be coming to see him soon, a coded reference to the money Byrd provided for Ravenell’s services, Byrd said.

Byrd described two separate sets of payments: one set that was paid directly to Ravenell for his services to the drug organization, or the “company,” as Byrd called it, and another that was paid to the Murphy firm for legal services.

Joshua R. Treem faces federal charges of falsifying records, obstructing an official proceeding and conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States related to his representation of fellow lawyer Kenneth W. Ravenell. (File photo)

Money that went to the Murphy firm came from marijuana sales, Byrd said, but could then be funneled into legitimate enterprises, like development projects. The firm gave Byrd’s drug profits a veneer of credibility, he said.

Byrd said Ravenell was aware of the source of the money.

“Every dollar, every penny, every nickel that comes through, Mr. Ravenell is aware of exactly where that money comes from,” Byrd said.

A message left at the Murphy firm on Tuesday has not been returned.

Byrd’s organization shipped tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana from the West Coast to the East, where it was distributed across the country, he said. Byrd had to forfeit $20 million when he was convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering in 2017.

The defense lawyers are working to raise doubts about Byrd’s credibility.

Outlaw told jurors that Byrd and other drug traffickers who will testify against Ravenell are hoping to shorten their prison sentences by cooperating, which Byrd acknowledged on the stand.

“They are all working for their ‘get out of jail sooner’ cards,” Outlaw said.

Also on trial are Joshua R. Treem, another well-known defense attorney who initially represented Ravenell while he was under investigation, and Sean F. Gordon, a private investigator who had worked with Ravenell.

Treem and Gordon both face obstruction charges. The government alleges that they interviewed Byrd while he was incarcerated in Arizona in 2017 with the goal of taking Byrd “off the board,” or hurting his credibility as a witness so that he could not testify against Ravenell.

Byrd recorded the meeting using a pair of specially equipped eyeglasses that federal investigators provided.

Treem and Gordon’s lawyers both argued Wednesday that their clients were doing their jobs when they interviewed Byrd and are not guilty of any crime.

Treem’s lawyer, Robert Trout, said his client would never do anything to risk his reputation as an ethical lawyer.

“At all times, the evidence will show he was lawfully and in good faith providing legal representation to his client,” Trout said.

Trout said that Byrd reached out to Treem before the 2017 meeting and offered to provide exculpatory evidence that would help Ravenell. Treem brought Gordon to the meeting to act as a witness in case Byrd said something useful, Trout said.

Treem brought a list of statements to the meeting with Byrd and asked Byrd to review the information, Trout said, in an effort to establish what Byrd would say if called to testify against Ravenell. Byrd largely agreed with the document on the first day of his meeting with Treem, but backtracked on the second day, Trout said, and began implicating Ravenell in the drug trafficking operation.

Byrd indicated he needed money in order to stick with the story from the first day, Trout said.

Treem said he could not put Byrd on the witness stand if he knew Byrd was planning to lie. In fact, Trout said, Treem never intended to use Byrd as a witness because he had heard from another lawyer who’d represented Byrd that “as liars go, Byrd was in a league of his own.”

Months after the meeting with Treem, Byrd called Gordon and left a voicemail, Trout said, that seemed “extortionate.” Treem decided to write a letter memorializing his concerns about Byrd to U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett — a letter that prosecutors say contained inaccurate information about what Byrd had said.

Trout acknowledged that the document was not perfect.

“He may be fairly accused of being a senior citizen with less-then photographic memory, but he is not guilty of obstruction of justice,” Trout said of Treem.

Trout also said that a federal prosecutor was in the room with Byrd when Byrd made the phone call to Gordon, and that the call had been an effort to set up Treem.

“Yes, there was guile, there were lies, there were falsehoods, but none of that was Josh’s doing,” Trout said. “That was the government’s doing.”