Iran/Contra whistleblower Cele Castillo increasingly looks like a framed man

The conviction of Iran/Contra whistleblower Celerino “Cele” Castillo III late last year on federal charges of dealing in firearms without a license is beginning to look more and more like a travesty of justice.

Among the latest revelations in the case is the fact that Castillo was being represented by a lawyer who was in the process of having his bar license suspended for allegedly bilking clients out of money. On top of that, this same lawyer’s son was facing serious gun charges in another federal court in Texas at the same time he was representing Castillo.

Those facts on there own create a huge conflict of interest for that attorney in handling Castillo’s case, given that both situations would have made it extremely difficult for that lawyer to provide a vigorous defense for his client. In the back of his mind, the attorney had to worry about his future, and that of his son’s, should he run afoul of the prosecutor in Castillo’s case, according to attorneys and law enforcers who spoke with Narco News.

“Everything [in the case] is tainted by the lawyer trying to get out from under things, particularly in relation to his son,” says Reber Boult, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney who serves as co-legal director for the ACLU of New Mexico. “He couldn’t do anything that the prosecutor didn’t like.

“… Even if we assume the government [the prosecutor] did everything by the book, his [Castillo’s] lawyer still seems to have opened himself up to allegations of providing ineffective assistance of counsel.”

Castillo’s case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, which is overseen by Johnny Sutton, a close personal friend of former president George W. Bush. During his tenure as a U.S. Attorney, Sutton has been at the center of a number of controversial criminal cases, some of which have elicited national outrage.

Among those who have been outraged by Sutton’s conduct is Sandalio Gonzalez, a retired DEA agent who used to oversee the agency’s field office in El Paso, Texas. Gonzalez is even more pointed in his analysis of Castillo’s case and his problematic attorney.

“I have no doubt that if Sutton was aware of all this, he would have used it to put pressure on Cele’s attorney,” Gonzalez says. “Those guys have no scruples.”

Prosecutors under Sutton’s watch put Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean in a federal prison facing sentences of 10 years-plus for shooting a drug smuggler in the posterior, a case that fermented national protest (primarily from the political right) and eventually led Bush to commute their sentences just prior to leaving office in mid-January.

Johnny Sutton also oversaw the infamous House of Death case in which a U.S. government informant assisted in the torture and murders of at least a dozen people between August 2003 and mid-January 2004 in Juarez, Mexico (just across the border from El Paso, Texas, which is part of Sutton’s district). Despite claims by the informant that his U.S. handlers were aware of those murders, often in advance, Sutton’s office allowed the informant to continue his bloody work and later cut a plea deal with the Juarez narco-trafficker (Heriberto Santillan Taberas) who had ordered the murders — a deal that included dropping the murder charges against him. Sutton then used his pull within the U.S. Justice Department to retaliate against and silence former El Paso Special Agent in Charge Sandalio Gonzalez, who sought to expose the government’s complicity in the murders after a DEA agent and his family were nearly murdered by Santillan’s men.

On top of that, the Bush administration, through the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department attorneys, initiated deportation proceedings against the informant, Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, who claims he will be murdered by the narco-traffickers he betrayed if he is returned to Mexico. Despite an immigration judge ruling twice that Ramirez Peyro’s claims are valid, the Bush administration continued to push for his deportation — some argue, including Gonzalez, in order to silence the informant and protect the U.S. law enforcers and prosecutors involved in the cover-up of their roles in the Juarez atrocities. Ramirez Peyro’s case is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit — where it is now up to President Obama’s Justice Department to determine whether or not to continue pushing for Ramirez Peyro’s deportation.

And now there is the case of Castillo.

Committing The Truth

Castillo is a former DEA agent who played a key role in exposing the U.S. government’s role in narco-trafficking as part of the Iran/Contra scandal.

Castillo, while a DEA agent in Central America in the 1980s, during the Reagan/Bush administration, uncovered evidence that the CIA and the White House National Security Council, through San Antonio, Texas, native and national counter-terrorism coordinator Lt. Col. Oliver North and other CIA assets, were carrying out illegal operations at two hangers at Ilopango Airport in El Salvador. Those airport hangars, Castillo contends, served as weapons and narcotics transshipment centers for funding and arming the U.S.-backed Contra counter-insurgency against the government of Nicaragua.

From that moment forward, Castillo became a target of those pulling the strings in that dirty war.

“Cele became a household word inside DEA,” says Gonzalez, who worked in Latin America at the same time Castillo was stationed in the region. “They ruined his reputation over the stuff that happened in El Salvador [Iran/Contra] and he became a target. He took on the Establishment, and it didn’t come out so good for him.”

Castillo subsequently, after a 12-year career, retired from the DEA, but to this day he has remained an outspoken critic of the hypocrisy of the war on drugs, penning a book about his experiences in DEA, called Powderburns, and appearing on numerous radio and TV shows.

Recently Castillo, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has no prior criminal record, was convicted of dealing firearms without the proper license and sentenced to 37 months in a federal prison. (See prior Narco News story on Castillo’s case here.)

Castillo made it clear to the judge in his case during testimony at an Oct. 1, 2008, court hearing that he believed there was a bull’s-eye painted on his back due to his role as a whistleblower in the Iran/Contra scandal.

From the transcript of that Oct. 1 hearing:

One of the major problems I had with the government was that I got involved or initiated the Iran/Contra investigation back at that time in El Salvador, in Guatemala, with Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and I started reporting the incidents of drug trafficking and arms smuggling by several branches of our government. …

Several law enforcement agents who spoke with Narco News also are convinced that Castillo was targeted, even framed, by elements of the U.S. government because he had ruffled the wrong feathers.

That’s a serious charge, but a closer look at Castillo’s case doesn’t do anything to put it to rest, particularly in light of the prior controversies surrounding Sutton’s U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio.

Bait And Switch

Castillo was convicted of dealing guns without a government-issued license as part of a plea bargain hammered together at his sentencing hearing on Oct. 1 of last year. He arrived in court that day to be sentence on two other charges related to making straw gun purchases. Those charges had been pending since March of 2008, but had to be dropped by Sutton’s office because they were, in essence, bogus.

The straw charges required evidence that Castillo had purchased guns from a “prohibited” person, specifically a convicted felon. The complaint sworn out by the ATF agent involved in Castillo’s arrest claims an individual involved in selling guns to Castillo was, in fact, a convicted felon. Castillo claims that was a false charge, hence he argues the arrest violated his constitutional rights.

Castillo says the government has no evidence that he sold any guns, other than his own words, an honest admission that he did sell some hunting rifles — specifically shotguns used for bird hunting. Law enforcement officials who spoke with Narco News on background say it is highly unusual for the ATF to seek a criminal prosecution for dealing guns without a license unless there is evidence that prohibited individuals, such as convicted felons, were involved in those gun deals — and there is no evidence of that in Castillo’s case, which is why the government had to drop the charges alleging he was a party to straw gun purchases. (A straw purchase is carried out when an individual purchases a gun from a licensed gun dealer for the sole purpose of reselling it to another individual. In those cases, based on court precedent in USA vs. Polk, no crime is committed if the transaction does not involve a prohibited person.)

Castillo contends he never bought or sold weapons from or to convicted felons, what’s more trafficked arms in Mexico — another claim advanced in the ATF complaint that Castillo contends was false. In fact, the magistrate who signed the ATF complaint specifically struck the latter charge from the complaint, because there was no evidence supporting it.

Still, Sutton’s office proceeded with the prosecution, arresting Castillo on what turned out to be a non-offense. And then, on Oct. 1, after his attorney, Robert “Eddie” De La Garza of San Antonio, had previously convinced him to plead out to those bogus charges, the prosecutor in the case, Mark T. Roomberg, informed Castillo that the charges would be dropped.

However, Roomberg also indicated that Sutton’s office was going to go back to the grand jury and seek a new indictment on Castillo if he did not agree to a new plea deal that day in court, according to De La Garza and Castillo — who both provided Narco News their accounts of the sentencing hearing.

Castillo says he did not have the $15,000 or $20,000 it would take to fight the government all the way to trial, and his life, and that of his family’s, had already been turned upside down for more than seven months while the bogus charges were pending against him — charges backed up by the word of a snitch (with no prior criminal record) who had sold Castillo some guns. (That snitch, who faced the same charges as Castillo, ultimately received a sentence of five years probation.)

So based on the word of his attorney, De La Garza, and what he believed to be a promise from the prosecutor, Roomberg, Castillo agreed to plead out a second time to two new charges of dealing in firearms without a license. The judge sentence him to 37 months, recommending a stay in a federal medical facility due to his multiple medical conditions — including diabetes, heart problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And that promise — that he would retain his DEA and other benefits and, according to his lawyer, likely only get probation — well, that didn’t pan out. Castillo subsequently discovered that he will lose his DEA benefits and that other benefits, such as his Social Security payments, would be suspended while he is incarcerated. That means his family will not have the money to pay for health insurance, Castillo says.

De La Garza defends the plea deal, saying Castillo was facing “a roll of the dice.” If he had not taken the deal, the government, he says, would have come at him with guns blazing and he might well have gotten far more time in jail.

“The government was not going away,” De La Garza says. “The threat was that they would go to the next grand jury and they would throw a whole bunch of stuff at him, five or six more counts.”

De La Garza claims where Castillo got the short stick was in the judge’s application of the sentencing guidelines.

“There was a lot of discussion [by the prosecutor Roomberg at Castillo's sentencing hearing] … of 'we believe, we suppose, that the guns ended up in Mexico,' ” De La Garza says. “So, for the purposes of the sentencing guidelines, extra points were added for trafficking and for extra weapons, when there was no proof of that. The judge applied those points; that’s why he got three years [in jail].”

De La Garza also claims that in a discussion outside the courtroom that day, Oct. 1, Roomberg told him that Castillo would keep his benefits if he pled out to the new charges. And De La Garza says he relayed that information to Castillo.

“Cele did have a reason to believe he would keep his benefits,” De La Garza says. However, De La Garza concedes that guarantee was never put into writing in the new plea deal that Castillo agreed to sign that day in court.

Attorney Boult points out that any such agreement about benefits should have been spelled out clearly in the plea deal.

“The attorney has to make clear to the client the meaning and consequences of the plea,” he says.

The court transcripts of the Oct. 1 hearing in federal court in San Antonio demonstrate that the issue of Castillo’s benefits was of high concern to the judge. Those transcripts likewise show the prosecutor, Roomberg, seemingly assuring the judge that Castillo’s benefits would be safe under the plea deal — though he does employ slippery legal language that appears designed to insulate him from any responsibility should he turn out to be wrong.

From the court transcripts of the Oct. 1 hearing:

THE COURT: … I – I will not in any way do anything to remove your benefits, but there — there are instances where I understand in a sentencing a federal judge can remove the benefits that people receive from either Social Security, the Veteran’s Administration, or whatever. It’s not my plan to do that. Is the government planning to ask for that?

MR. ROOMBERG: No, Your Honor. In fact, in regards to the superseding information, the reason these particular charges were chosen, we could have picked another charge causing a false entry — causing a licensed firearm dealer to put a false entry into their book which would be more of a falsity crime and which to my understanding from talking to other attorneys would have a far greater impact than this would because it is not a criminal falsity crime, either the conspiracy or the one substantive count, it would not impact on that. I’m not an expert on that. We’re not taking a position on it. We’re certainly not seeking that from the Court. But that – that’s our position.

THE COURT: Well, that’s helpful, and I would not order it anyway. You’ve earned those benefits and –

THE DEFENDANT [Castillo]: I certainly appreciate that, sir.

THE COURT: I think you ought to keep those benefits.

THE DEFENDANT [Castillo]: Thank you, sir.

MR. DE LA GARZA: Yes, sir.

After all that, Castillo will now lose his benefits, he says.

Conflict Of Interest

Another subplot in Castillo’s case that is playing out in the background is the fact that his lawyer’s son was facing serious gun charges in a separate federal district in South Texas at the same time De La Garza was representing Castillo in federal court in San Antonio.

De La Garza’s son, Andrew, in February 2007 was indicted on weapons charges as the result of an ATF investigation in McAllen, Texas — near the Mexican border. Andrew De La Garza was charged with making a false statement to a firearms dealer in acquisition of a firearm and possessing a firearm with an obliterated ID and was facing a potential 15-year prison stint. That case is still playing out in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Castillo’s case is being heard in the Western District of Texas — prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for that district, led by Johnny Sutton.

De La Garza’s kid was offered a plea deal on May 2, 2008, a couple weeks after his father took on Castillo's case. The prosecutor in the son’s case agreed to drop one count "at the time of sentencing" and agreed to recommend a decrease in the offense level on the other count — a good deal that promised to substantially reduce the potential prison sentence. But clearly, that deal is still subject to the judge’s discretion at the time of sentencing — as Castillo has since learned the hard way.

Castillo was initially assigned a court-appointed public defender for his case, who told Castillo that he could not help him, that “they [the government] got you,” Castillo recalls.

At that point, Castillo says he put out the word through friends that he needed to find a good attorney. A short time later, Castillo claims De La Garza, an old college friend, contacted him and offered to represent him. So Castillo, in mid-April of this year, retained De La Garza as his attorney.

Added to that coincidence of events is the fact that sentencing dates in the case involving De la Garza’s son have been postponed several times -— each time to move the date back past a crucial court date in Castillo's case. (The latest postponement pushed the kid's sentencing date back to late March, after Castillo is slated to report to prison.)

Castillo says he was aware early on that his attorney, De La Garza, had a potential conflict of interest in the case with respect to the charges against the son. But De La Garza, he says, assured him he should not worry about it. It is not clear at this point whether Roomberg or the judge were a ware of the gun case involving De La Garza’s son, though De La Garza contends they were not. (Interestingly, Castillo alleges that there is one ATF agent who played a key role in both cases.)

Despite the fact that his son’s fate was in the hands of the same federal judicial system seeking to punish Castillo, De La Garza told Narco News that “he did not feel any pressure” as a result of his son’s pending case that in anyway affected his handling of Castillo’s case.

But it gets stranger from there. After Castillo was sentenced to 37 months in jail on Oct. 22 as part of the second plea bargain, he discovered another hidden secret in this sorted tale of justice. It popped up in a legal publication called the Texas Bar Journal:

On Oct. 17, 2008, Roberto E. De LaGarza [#05646875], 56, of San Antonio, accepted a three-year, partially probated suspension effective Nov. 1, 2008, with the first year actively served and the remainder probated. The District 10-A Grievance Committee found in connection with a criminal matter, De La Garza requested and received payments from his client and client's sister to hire experts and make restitution payments to the victims, but kept the payments and subsequently claimed the sums paid as additional fees. De La Garza also agreed to pursue a civil matter for the client and requested a $5,000 retainer in addition to a contingent fee interest. De La Garza subsequently declined to pursue the civil claims but failed to refund any of the retainer or the filing fee. In an immigration matter, De La Garza was paid a $10,000 fee to obtain a resident visa for his client. De La Garza was terminated within three months, did not complete the visa application, and failed to refund unearned fees. De La Garza violated Rules 1.15(d) and 8.04(a)(3). He was ordered to pay $2,500 in attorney's fees and expenses and $23,000 in restitution.

So it seems Castillo’s attorney knew he was facing a bar suspension when he told Castillo to cop the plea on Oct. 1, and knew at Castillo's sentencing date on Oct. 22 that his law license was being suspended within a matter of days. The one person who did not know all of this was Castillo himself, until after he began trying to pull together the case files and other information to help put together his post-conviction appeal.

Despite repeated attempts by Castillo and his appeals attorney to retrieve the case files from De La Garza, they were stonewalled, Castillo claims, until last week (about a month before he is supposed to report to prison), when the files finally showed up at the office of the court-appointed attorney now handling his appeal.

Narco News contacted De La Garza on Jan. 25 to interview him for this story. During that phone interview, De La Garza volunteered that he had just gotten the files together.

“I have to get those files to the appellate attorney,” he said during the interview. “They will need to review them.”

De La Garza claims the bar suspension all stems from a big misunderstanding. He says the problem revolves around a single past client who, De La Garza alleges, made claims that were not true. Unfortunately, De La Garza says he failed to keep adequate documentation in that case to refute the claims.

“They [the Texas Bar] offered me a deal, and I knew I was winding down my law practice anyway, going into my own business, so I decided to settle,” De La Garza says.

De La Garza previously told Castillo, and Narco News, that he was taking a job with the state of Texas effective Nov. 1, which is why, he said at the time, that he could not handle Castillo’s post-conviction appeal.

And if this Greek tragedy did not already have enough twists, Castillo claims that De La Garza told him he received a phone call from Assistant U.S. Attorney Roomberg, within days of Narco News publishing (on Nov. 1) its first story on his case. Roomberg delivered a terse message to De La Garza, Castillo claims.

“Roomberg called my attorney,” Castillo says, “saying the [Narco News’] story made his office look bad.” (De La Garza was also quoted in that story.]

Narco News called Del La Garza back twice, seeking to verify Castillo’s claim, but he did not return the calls after the Jan. 25 interview. Narco News also attempted to contact Roomberg for comment for this story, leaving a message on his answering machine, but he did not return the call.

Then, in mid-January, Castillo says he got word from the Bureau of Prisons informing him that he would not be serving his time in a medical facility, as the judge had recommended. Rather, he is now being sent to the federal prison in La Tuna, New Mexico. At this point, Castillo says he is not certain where he will be housed in the prison, or what kind of protection will be offered to him, given he is going in as former DEA agent — not a popular career badge to be carrying in the pen.

"I find this all unbelievable,” says former DEA agent Mike Levine, who provided a supportive letter to the judge hearing Castillo's case that praises Castillo's long record of service to the country. “There is either something about the case that we don't know, or there is, pure and simple, a lot of payback for Cele's activism going on. I get the sense that someone with real power with a lot of hatred for Cele is getting off on twisting the knife.”

Castillo reports to prison on March 5 of this year. He is hoping the judge will allow him to stay out on bail while his post-conviction appeal is pending. The status of that appeal is not clear from the court docket, though on Jan. 30 Castillo’s appellate attorney filed a new motion with the court, which is sealed.

Johnny Sutton is still in control of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio. President Obama is apparently proceeding deliberately in reviewing which of the Bush U.S. Attorneys will be asked to stay onboard in the new administration.

From a Jan. 5 story in the publication Legal Times:

In a meeting last month with Barack Obama's transition staff, representatives of the nation's top prosecutors caught a glimpse of the president-elect's thinking on the politically fraught issue of what to do with the current 93 U.S. Attorneys.

"[The president-elect] is going to be smart and be cautious. My gut feeling is it won't be like it was in 1993," said U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton of Texas' Western District, a member of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys.

… Sutton declined to characterize Ogden's comments but said he left the meeting with the impression that the president-elect will address the U.S. Attorneys individually. "I think they're going to work on a case-by-case basis," said Sutton, who as a member of the Bush-Cheney transition took part in similar meetings before he was a committee member.

In that “case-by-case” analysis, it would seem Castillo’s case is one the Obama administration should not overlook in deciding the future course of justice in this country. Time will tell.

Stay tuned. …

 

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