A federal prosecutor accused a Tucson lawyer of being a drug trafficker in federal court Friday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daphne Newaz said federal agents had probable cause to believe Rafael Gallego, a longtime Tucson lawyer who was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of obstruction of justice, was a member of a drug-trafficking organization. She also said FBI agents found cocaine in Gallego’s law office during a raid shortly after his arrest, which elicited a puzzled look from Gallego and a vehement objection from his attorney, Joshua Hamilton.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Marquez said she would seal the courtroom if prosecutors brought up issues other than the reason for the hearing, which was to discuss how to handle documents and hard drives taken from Gallego’s office by the FBI.
A federal grand jury indicted Gallego, 59, and his assistant, Ricardo Gallego, 39, on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, conspiracy to commit false statements, obstruction of justice, accessory after the fact and conspiracy to tamper with a witness, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, which is handling the case.
Both men are accused of lying to federal investigators, border agents and a federal prosecutor in a cocaine-smuggling case from 2017. In that case, customs officers in Nogales arrested a man in January 2017 after allegedly finding more than 20 pounds of cocaine hidden in the airbag compartment of his vehicle. The drug-smuggling charges in that case were dismissed in October 2017, court records show.
The two men are accused of aiding their client to hinder and prevent his apprehension, trial and punishment on the drug charges. They also are accused of trying to persuade their client to provide false information to investigators, according to the news release.
Rafael Gallego pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on his own recognizance on Wednesday, court records show. On Friday, he sat at the defense table wearing a gray suit and pink shirt.
His assistant, Ricardo Gallego, also pleaded not guilty to all charges. Court records show Newaz said there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer placed on him and he was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Defense attorney Stephen Portell said in an interview that Ricardo Gallego has legal status in the United States and was released from custody.
A trial is scheduled for Sept. 18.
Hours before Friday’s hearing, Hamilton filed a motion asking Marquez to block the FBI from searching materials found at Rafael Gallego’s office, which contain confidential material from his other clients who are not connected to the investigation.
Hamilton asked Marquez to order the documents, hard drives and a cellphone seized by the FBI be turned over to an independent investigator to ensure no confidential information on Gallego’s clients is released to investigators.
“There is no question that the government is now in possession of a significant amount of privileged information, much of which is wholly unrelated to its current investigation of Mr. Gallego,” Hamilton wrote.
Marquez granted Hamilton’s request to block investigators from looking at seized materials, saying she was “very concerned” about the confidential information of Gallego’s clients.
Marquez said she would consider appointing a special master to determine whether information obtained during the raid was confidential or unrelated to the investigation. She asked Hamilton and Newaz to provide her with names of people they both considered acceptable to be the special master.
In the interest of allowing Gallego’s law office to continue to function, she said the FBI could copy, but not examine, hard drives before returning them to Gallego next week.
Newaz said the FBI has procedures in place to properly handle confidential materials during investigations.
In his motion Friday morning, Hamilton said federal agents used a battering ram to enter Gallego’s office.
Gallego was arrested outside Pima County Superior Court as he was headed to a jury trial, Hamilton wrote. A mistrial was declared in the trial.
Soon after the arrest, agents armed with military-style rifles raided Gallego’s office and held his legal secretary at gunpoint, Hamilton wrote.
The arrest was “unnecessarily dramatic,” Hamilton wrote, saying the doors to the office were unlocked during business hours when agents arrived. He questioned why Gallego was not issued a summons to appear in federal court so that he could voluntarily present himself.
At the hearing, Newaz said Hamilton’s claim was “patently untrue.” Agents had battering rams but did not use them, she said.
Gallego has worked as an attorney in Arizona since 1991, including as a deputy Pima County Attorney, Hamilton wrote.
He was suspended by the Arizona Bar Association for one year in March 2008 after an investigation determined he was using cocaine before and during a murder trial, according to the bar association.
In the motion Friday, Hamilton said Gallego had a “prior disciplinary history owing to a substance abuse issue, long since resolved, and has been a a member (of the state bar) in good standing ever since.”
The two men face up to 20 years in prison on the witness-tampering charges, 10 years for obstruction of justice charges and up to five years on the other conspiracy charges, according to the news release.