A longtime San Diego defense attorney intimidated a witness and tried to hide $100,000 in drug money for a client, the attorney admitted in court Tuesday.
James Warner, a defense attorney for alleged drug dealers and criminal defendants for more than 40 years, accepted the terms of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
Court records reveal Warner promised to invest the $100,000 in drug money overseas, and even pay the drug dealer 18 percent on the cash.
In September, his law office became a crime scene when federal agents, armed with a search warrant, found $200,000 cash hidden in a suitcase. Most of the money was in a vacuum sealed bag and was linked to drug dealers, prosecutors said.
The case has echoes of the fictional “Breaking Bad” character Saul Goodman, a lawyer who schemed with meth dealers in the AMC hit that concluded its final season last year. The spin-off “Better Call Saul,” named after the character's advertising pitch to clients, is set to begin airing next year.
That cash was in addition to the cash Warner now admits he tried to hide for a client.
According to a search warrant, federal agents had overlooked that drug-related cash when they searched the suspect's home.
When the client brought Warner the money, and explained how it had escaped the agent’s notice, Warner allegedly told the client he could hide the money by investing it in a gambling company in Africa.
According to the warrant, Warner told his client the investment would generate 18 percent interest.
He also promised to return that drug-tainted money in a year.
In an interview outside court, after Warner entered his guilty plea, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri Walker Hobson took pains to remind the public that defense attorneys play an important role in the criminal justice system.
"I should really emphasize that this conviction today should not reflect negatively on the good work done by defense attorneys,” Walker Hobson told NBC 7.
As part of his guilty plea, Warner will pay more than $400,000 in fines, penalties and forfeitures and will avoid prison.
Instead, he faces three years probation, one year of house arrest and must complete 2,000 hours of community service.
“This is a sad and tragic day for Jim Warner, who has been a terrific lawyer in this community, a loving husband and father, and is a fine person,” his attorneys, Charles Sevilla and Michael Pancer, told NBC 7.
But a judge could overrule that agreement and send Warner to prison when he is sentenced in October.
Warner indicated in court that he will resign from the State Bar Association. His law license is also subject to revocation, with this guilty plea.