The trial of Abu Ghraib whistleblower Paul Bergrin entered a key phase on February 20 as the government’s central witness, alleged hit man Oscar Cordova, began his direct testimony. Bergrin, a prominent North Jersey defense attorney and former JAG lawyer, was one of the first people to disclose human rights abuses at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Many believe that his efforts to bring Bush, Cheney and other administration officials to justice are the reason why the current laundry list of federal charges is being pursued. According to the government, Bergrin was engaged in large-scale drug dealing and conspired to murder witnesses on behalf of clients. The government witnesses have essentially been a parade of unsavory characters looking to deal their way out of legal jeopardy. Almost all have conceded lying in previous legal matters, yet the government has repeatedly assured that this time they can be believed.
Is Begrin’s federal trial payback for his work to expose abuses at Abu Ghraib?
The government packed the courtroom with security personnel for Cordova, complete with communication devices protruding from their ears, presumably to drive home the point to jurors that the witness was in need of extraordinary protection. Evidently, the government is asserting that the fact that Bergrin has been imprisoned for four years has not lessened the supposed threat he poses to prosecution witnesses. The government’s direct examination of Cordova was conducted by lead government prosecutor, AUSA John Gay. Cordova performed as expected under Gay’s friendly and often leading questioning. Numerous tapes were played in which Cordova could be heard speaking with Bergrin about drug dealing and murder. There was, however, something surreal about the discussions. Bergrin had told the court weeks ago in his opening statement that the tapes with Cordova would prove to be nothing more than role playing, and that appeared to be the case as utterly absurd and improbable discussions were played for the court.
A statue of blind justice sits prominently outside the courthouse where the Bergrin charade is unfolding
Bergrin is an experienced criminal defense lawyer and as such would certainly have pegged Oscar the hit man as a fraud from the very beginning. Cordova claimed to be the national leader of the Latin Kings gang, son of imprisoned leader Lord Gino. But Bergrin had represented real Latin Kings and must be assumed to have immediately spotted Cordova as a fraud. Why he decided to “play” with Cordova and answer his role-playing with role-playing of his own is anyone’s guess, but the tapes speak for themselves and reveal strangely cartoonish conversations.
While Cordova claimed to be the international leader of the Latin Kings, Bergrin, having represented real Latin King gang members in the past, would have immediately recognized him as a fraud
On one tape Bergrin promises to make Cordova “not a millionaire, but a billionaire” as they discuss setting-up a “global” drug network that would yield millions in profits every week. The idea of a high-powered criminal attorney like Bergrin seriously making such plans with a simpleton like Cordova is beyond ridiculous. Other conversations included details of murders Bergrin wanted carried out by Cordova. Much was made of the alleged murder plot involving “Junior the Panamanian.” Bergrin never tells Cordova where he can find Junior, or what he looks like, but repeatedly insists that he be killed. All of the calls in which murder or drug dealing was being discussed were oddly lacking necessary details.
The government guided Cordova through his well-rehearsed testimony for the better part of two days. Having been billed as the government’s star witness, his performance could only have been seen as a disappointment from the prosecution’s perspective. Cordova appeared to be dull-witted, developmentally challenged and possibly medicated as he haltingly recited his prepared lines. The government indicated on Wednesday afternoon that their direct examination was almost complete and on Thursday, February 21, the defense finally had their opportunity to challenge what may have been some of the most preposterous testimony ever presented in a federal courtroom.
Bergrin, who continued to act as his own counsel, began his cross-examination of Oscar the pretend hit man by having him verify some of his more outrageous claims. Oscar conceded that he had told Bergrin about his personal relationship with Chapo Guzman, the world’s most wanted drug lord. He also admitted that he had told Bergrin he had committed “hundreds” of murders. Bergrin asked if in the history of the United States he had ever heard of a mass murderer or assassin who was credited with hundreds of victims. When Cordova lamely offered a response of “Sammy Gravano,” there was laughter in the courtroom and Bergrin was quick to point out that Gravano had in fact killed only 23 people. Cordova repeatedly claimed he was only “role-playing.” This would become a familiar line throughout Bergrin’s blistering cross-examination. Despite his lame protestations to the contrary, the point was made that Cordova’s story was completely ludicrous.
Cordova’s mention of Sammy Gravano elicited laughter in the courtroom and highlighted the absurdity of his tale
Having exposed Cordova as a teller of childishly unbelievable tales, Bergrin next began to expertly demonstrate that the witness was a professional informant who had repeatedly lied to his handlers. Cordova admitted having acted as a federal informant on various matters since 1999. After much prodding, he also admitted to having falsely accused another individual of murder. When Bergrin asked Cordova if he realized that his false accusation exposed this individual to the death penalty, Cordova resorted to a well-rehearsed refrain of “This trial is not about me, it’s about you, Paul Bergrin, and the people you killed and the drugs you sold.” Cordova reached to this retort whenever he was forced to admit an embarrassing detail or fact which was harmful to the prosecution. Judge Cavanaugh grew tired of it and repeatedly told Cordova and his handlers that “The witness is not doing himself any favors.” Cavanaugh had to repeatedly direct Cordova to answer Bergrin’s questions as he sought refuge in his practiced obfuscation.
USDJ Dennis Cavanaugh appears to be sensing that the government’s case against Bergrin is disintegrating
Another bit of rehearsed choreography Cordova resorted to was dodging questions by patting his hands on the pile of transcripts in front of him and saying, “No matter what you say, Paul, the transcripts and the tapes don’t lie.” Bergrin deftly proved the opposite to be true, having Cordova concede that he had the ability to turn his recording device on and off as he pleased. Cordova was also forced to admit that some of his most outrageous claims against Bergrin were somehow not taped.
Early in Bergrin’s cross-examination, Cordova was caught in a blatant lie regarding another investigation in which he had cooperated with federal authorities. Paul then asked Cordova if he had been prepped by the FBI and U.S. attorneys for today’s testimony. Cordova admitted to lengthy rehearsals for his performance in court. Paul then asked, “Is telling lies like that part of how you were instructed to testify?” There was audible laughter in the courtroom and more importantly, among the jurors. Spectators were threatened with removal if there were further outbursts.
Did the FBI and U.S. attorney actively suborn perjury by prepping Cordova to testify falsely?
Cordova became visibly upset whenever the questioning turned to the topic of his alleged father, imprisoned Latin King leader Lord Gino. Cordova looked to the judge for help several times saying, “Your Honor, I don’t want him asking about my father.” Cavanaugh seemed a bit puzzled and was at first sympathetic to Cordova, gently advising him that Bergrin had the right to ask these questions. Even after Cavanaugh’s gentle prodding, Cordova was reticent to answer questions regarding his supposed father. It became immediately obvious to all in attendance that there were significant doubts about Cordova’s claimed lineage. Most likely, he was just an opportunistic petty criminal who was able to initially fool the feds with his claim of being Lord Gino’s son. The feds by now were likely wise to his lie, but had no choice but to stick with his initial story, ridiculous as it may be. Bergrin likely knew all along that the story was a complete fabrication and continued to question Cordova on the issue. Cordova repeatedly sought Cavanaugh’s assistance in dodging the questions, but the judge was growing weary of the witness’ performance and firmly instructed him to answer. Cordova attempted to resort to his rehearsed line of the trial not being about him, but the judge was now having none of it. Cavanaugh again told Cordova and his government handlers that his testimony was “not doing them any favors.” A look of resignation began to grow on Cordova’s face.
Imprisoned Latin King gang leader Lord Gino is almost certainly not Cordova’s father, despite sworn testimony to the contrary
Bergrin picked apart Cordova’s story masterfully, revealing one lie at a time. Zeroing in for the kill, he asked Cordova if he was receiving any type of professional care. Cordova hesitated and after a lengthy pause looked at Cavanaugh and said, “Your Honor, I don’t feel so good.” Cavanaugh noted that it was almost noon and declared a recess for lunch. Once the jury left the courtroom, AUSA Gay approached Cavanaugh and complained about Bergrin’s preceding question. Cavanaugh shot back, “Well, I didn’t hear an objection.” Gay said that the question had not yet been answered, so he was now objecting. Cavanaugh sustained the objection and broke for lunch.
Why did federal prosecutors from the Newark, NJ office fail to previously reveal that their star witness was receiving mental health counseling and had been prescribed mood stabilizing drugs?
Court resumed about an hour later. Prior to the jury being seated, Gay again approached Cavanaugh and said, “Your Honor, it has come to our attention that Mr. Cordova is in fact receiving counseling and taking two types of mood-stabilizing drugs.” Cavanaugh became visibly upset and said, “Why is it that we are four weeks into this trial and I am hearing for the first time that the government's central witness is medicated and receiving counseling?” Gay offered a mumbled response and the show continued.
Bergrin spent most of the afternoon driving home the point that Cordova had received no money to kill anyone and had received no address to locate the supposed target, despite repeatedly querying Bergrin. It became increasingly clear that there was never a plot to kill anyone. Cordova’s whole story about why he initially contacted the FBI about Bergrin was similarly exploded on cross-examination. Cordova claimed he met with Paul and spoke about the murder plot prior to calling the feds. The relevant dates, however, exposed this lie as Cordova had actually spoken with the feds prior to meeting Bergrin. This lie exposed the possibility that Cordova was called into service by his federal handlers specifically to try and entrap Bergrin before any “plot” existed. We may never know if it was Cordova or the feds who initiated this part of the scheme to ensnare Bergrin.
Who is Oscar Cordova and is that even his real name?
AUSA Gay sat expressionless as his central witness was repeatedly impeached and exposed as a serial perjurer. There seems to be no doubt that the government was fully aware of Cordova’s shortcomings as a witness and inconsistencies in his story, yet chose to partner with him in his perjurious performance. Subornation of perjury is a serious offense, but such charges are reserved exclusively for defense witnesses. The government’s case against Bergrin, advanced by a procession of mendacity, has devolved into a mockery of the justice the prosecutors purport to represent. If the prosecution possessed one iota of decency, they would pull the plug on this affront to the legal process.
The government’s case against Bergrin is predicated upon informants of the lowest order
Admittedly, it may be difficult for the average juror to concede that their government would engage in such violative behavior. Yet what is playing out before their eyes is the worst kind of government abuse one could imagine. The facts speak for themselves and one can only hope that the jury recognizes the government’s colossal fraud for exactly what it is. Meanwhile, the mockery of justice entitled U.S. v. Bergrin continues to unfold.