Were DEA Task Force Agent's Lies to California Prosecutors Part of Bribery Deal or Brilliant Undercover Policing?

Categories: Court, Crime-iny

Ex-federal prosecutor Ken Julian is now a Manatt, Phelps & Phillips partner handling a DEA bribery defense case
According to the FBI, Aaron Scott Vigil--an accomplished Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task-force officer in Southern California--and his wife lived luxuriously while spending a whopping $1,600 more each month than their income.

By 2009, the couple had landed in Chapter 13 bankruptcy. They lost a BMW to repossession, faced foreclosure on their home and was in dire need of cash.

A 2011, five-count, federal-grand-jury indictment alleges that's when Vigil, a Gulf War combat veteran, accepted a $2,500 bribe to participate in a scheme to dupe prosecutors in the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA).

Yet the opening of Vigil's trial last week underscored that while the FBI certainly can prove a con game was perpetrated on the OCDA and $2,500 changed hands as a result of an underhanded scheme, there is no direct evidence, such as an audio recording or a meaningful paper trail, that the DEA agent agreed to take a bribe or received one.

That apparent weakness in the government's case could make even a crappy criminal defense lawyer look terrific, but Vigil and his alleged co-conspirator, Lawrence Anthony Witsoe--a Vietnam War veteran and Mission Viejo defense attorney with a spotless 40-year career--are armed with superb legal representatives.

Veteran cop lawyer Michael D. Schwartz, Vigil's attorney, is a mastermind of courtroom strategies, expert wordsmith and talented evidence manipulator. Outside the presence of the jury, a feisty Schwartz has been unafraid to play dubious word games with an unamused, ethics-championing U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford, who is presiding in the case. That aggressiveness also landed him as counsel to Jay Cicinelli, one of the Fullerton police officers charged with unnecessarily beating Kelly Thomas to death.

Kenneth B. Julian, Witsoe's lawyer, is a Manatt, Phelps & Phillips partner who, until June 2009, served as deputy chief of the Orange County branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. Julian's strengths include not only a quick mind, a gentlemanly demeanor and a solid list of prosecutorial victories that long ago earned him Guilford's respect, but also that he knows local FBI agents and their tactics and once supervised the two assistant United States attorneys prosecuting Vigil and Witsoe.

Schwartz and Julian aren't denying the strength of the government's case--audio recordings of Witsoe repeatedly telling client Wayne Gillis, a Phoenix businessman accused of head-butting a Budget Rent-a-Car supervisor at John Wayne Airport in March 2009, that he had a mystery law-enforcement contact who could secretly influence prosecutors to drop the case in exchange for $2,500.

The defense lawyers also aren't denying that in several phone calls, Vigil, who was technically a Rialto Police Department cop, encouraged OC prosecutors to give special treatment to Gillis, a native of South Africa, because he had worked for him as a confidential DEA informant.

Schwartz calls Vigil's recorded lies about using Gillis as an informant "a misunderstanding" in an "ends justify the means" game of the Riverside County-based DEA task-force officer deceiving the OCDA as a way to ingratiate himself to the out-of-state businessman in hopes of converting him into a future informant.

That defense spin caused Assistant United States Attorney Robert Keenan, who is handling the case with fellow prosecutor Jennifer Waier, to contemptuously shake his head; Vigil had never even met or spoken to Gillis--and the Arizona businessman was an absurdly unlikely potential DEA informant. Keenan believes the circumstantial evidence of a bribery scheme is beyond a reasonable doubt. The case is, he insists, "a simple quid pro quo."

To bolster his contention, Keenan played for the jury audio-recording clips--he called them "Witsoe's greatest hits"--of the defense lawyer coaching Gillis on the details he should regurgitate about his fake confidential-informant work--including Vigil's name--if anyone in the government became suspicious of the scam and asked questions.

Witsoe had no clue that Gillis, who was worried he was being encouraged to commit a felony to escape lesser misdemeanor assault charges, had hired a second attorney and that they contacted the FBI about the ruse. Nor did he know Gillis had begun to record calls, save communications and wear a body wire for agents.

When the case eventually got dropped--secretly, at the FBI's insistence--Witsoe called his client with "the good news," told him to destroy potentially incriminating email and offered the mindset for him to adopt about the trick on the OCDA: "Nothing was said to anybody."

The government documented Gillis then sending Witsoe the $2,500 above their own legal deal and the lawyer forwarding that amount to Yareli Campos, the ex-wife of his investigator on the case, Ashraf Swiden.

[This is an important part of the case that the mainstream media blew by erroneously claiming Witsoe funneled the money to Vigil's ex-wife.]

As it turns out, Swiden isn't a licensed private detective in California. He's a bounty hunter, Inland Empire bar owner, and tire and wheel supplier who--drum roll, please--is close friends with an actual narcotics informant for Vigil, according to court records. It gets weirder: Swiden allegedly didn't have a bank account, so Witsoe customarily paid him for services through Campos, who is the mother of the bounty hunter's children.

According to Julian, while Witsoe and Vigil pulled "the wool over the DA's eyes," there can be no bribery scheme because the rightful, legal recipient of Gillis' extra payment was Swiden, who was paid to get his buddy Vigil to make the dubious calls to the OCDA without taking a dime.

"Doing a favor for a friend is not illegal," said Julian, who--along with Assistant United States Attorney Brett Sagel--gained public attention in 2008 and 2009 for the successful corruption prosecution of dirty Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona.

Sadly for Keenan's prosecution of Witsoe and Vigil, the $2,500 paper trail ends with Campos. In his opening statement, Keenan was forced to speculate that she gave the entire amount in cash to Vigil, who used a portion of the funds to settle a bankruptcy payment, and then wrote a check to her for $900 as compensation for her conduit role.

"Paper trails for cash don't exist," the prosecutor explained to jurors.

In his trial brief, Keenan pretends to have achieved a "gotcha" moment by noting sinisterly that 11 days after Campos deposited Witsoe's $2,500 check, Vigil made a $900 cash bank deposit. The prosecutor's guessing about the money flow helped to prompt Julian to describe the government's case as sloppy. He told the jury that the $900 check to Campos was reimbursement for babysitting Vigil's children.

"There is no evidence any of the [Gillis] money went to Vigil or that Lawrence Witsoe got any money," said Julian. "The government's case is based on [wrong] inferences."

He claims Campos and Swiden will testify that $1,500 of the Gillis money went to pay Campos owed child support and the other $1,000 went toward a kitchen-remodeling project, an assertion allegedly backed by receipts.

"The prosecution wants you to believe there was subterfuge," Julian told jurors. "But that's not true."

Schwartz predicted prosecutors won't be able to "connect the dots" to prove bribery, and he's questioning why his client is under attack when government officials should be celebrating Vigil for his ingenuity in developing confidential sources to disrupt illegal-narcotics trafficking.

"[Vigil] liked going after drug dealers," said Schwartz, who describes his client as "a superstar" among narcotics police. "If he has to play fast and loose with the truth to develop confidential informants, what's the big deal?"

Media pool photograph
Schwartz (standing) representing a Fullerton cop against charges he helped to savagely beat Kelly Thomas to death
With seeming sincerity, Schwartz wants to know: If the FBI is entitled to play "a charade" on his client and Witsoe with hopes of achieving a bigger law-enforcement objective--winning a bribery case--what is wrong with Vigil running a charade on the OCDA solely with the hopes of making future big drug arrests?

Preposterous defense-lawyer gobbledygook?

We'll have to wait and see what the nine women and three men on the jury ultimately conclude about Witsoe, who is free on bail, and Vigil, who, though dressed in a suit during trial, remains locked in the custody of U.S. marshals at the Santa Ana Jail.

Testimony in the case that is expected to last at least another week will resume Tuesday inside Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse.

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Email the author at: rscottmoxley at ocweekly dot com

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SHAME ON KENNETH JULIAN..... defending a client is one thing but flat out lying to a jury with stories of paying a baby sitter are a bit much.  Guess Julian likes being on the side of fraudulent legal tactics.... so he prosecuted Carona and got a conviction.  Let's hope Julian's head and ego reduce in size in the near future.... too much confidence and too many twisted legal tactics could turn into self destruction.

18usc241 topcommenter

Now that I've gotten over how Ken Julian looks like the mid 60's version of my dad: 

What is wrong with Vigil running a charade on the OC District Attorney solely with the hopes of making future big drug arrests? "If he has to play fast and loose with the truth to develop confidential informants, what's the big deal?"

Dear veteran cop lawyer Michael D. Schwartz, here is the huge problem with this mental-brain-fart-line-of-reasoning. You may not know this but your law enforcement community here in Orange County California has the morals of an alley cat / Bernie Madoffs except with less ethics. As a result, giving this crowd the idea that under any circumstance it's OK to defraud the Orange County District attorney is a slippery slope which guarantees all sorts of lawsuits and embarrassing situations in the future. 

An example: a Hispanic American man standing at the podium of the Anaheim city council meeting and asking the District Attorney (who was present)  how criminal and morally bankrupt a County has to be that a person is not aware of being convicted of a certain crime until he receives a terms-of-probation letter from OC Superior Court. And knowing full well that neither the DA nor any cop in that room was going to do anything since it's the tip of a very disgusting iceberg. 

So NO. Law enforcement in this jurisdiction can never be permitted to have the idea that's it's OK to con the DA under any circumstances. That they do on a regular basis is one thing. To officially foster the notion that it's acceptable ... no way Jose. 


@18usc241 When peoples lives are on the line with the drug lords watching then all your smug remarks about doing things the right way fly out the window! Drug lords dont play fair, just look over our boarders into Mexico Mr big mouth with no common sence! We play for keep here in our United States! We take out the real problems in this land of ours. So quit wining about being perfect in law... just kick ass on the real bad guys!!!...

18usc241 topcommenter

@tonybowturtles Here we go again with the wining about how dangerous your job is as a law enforcement officer. Nobody stuck a stick of dynamite up your behind and forced you to be a law enforcement officer. The job is dangerous and compounded by the fact that you're supposed to abide by a sworn oath. Tough job. It's also why you command the respect that you do in the community. Just a small problem with that scene - you have nothing but contempt for your oath. You consider it an impediment and something to be resented. You pretty much admitted such with your own words here. 

"just look over our boarders into Mexico Mr big mouth with no common sence!"

Well let's see. I was working on Colombian mountain tops for law enforcement surveillance purposes.  The "barrio" was so friendly that a look outside the windowsill featured a Colombian military artillery battery. Does that qualify?

"We play for keep here in our United States!"

What's this "we/our" nonsense? If you are younger than 50,  this Hispanic American was an AMERICAN while you were still floating around in daddy's nut sack. 

And now for the thing that really bugs me. If you are going to try to insult me, please don't misspell two words in the sentence.  

Apologies for the vulgarity. This classy crowd sometimes makes it impossible to resist. 

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