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Criminal – Lawyer’s Obstruction Conviction Reversed

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//September 29, 2011

Criminal – Lawyer’s Obstruction Conviction Reversed

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//September 29, 2011

U.S. v. Blair. (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-148-11, 47 pp.) (Wilkinson, J.) (Traxler, J., dissernting) Appealed from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland at Greenbelt. (Messitte, J.) 4th Cir. Click here for the full-text opinion.

Holding: In this appeal by a Maryland attorney convicted of multiple crimes arising from a scheme to launder drug proceeds he obtained from a client, the 4th Circuit affirms the lawyer’s money laundering convictions and denial of his motion to sever counts for failure to file income taxes, but reverses the lawyer’s conviction for obstruction of justice for omitting his prior disciplinary record from his application for pro hac vice status in a Virginia case.


Appellant Walter Blair challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain his convictions on several counts of the indictment. There was sufficient evidence to convict Blair of laundering more than $70,000 in drug proceeds given to him by Elizabeth Nicely on Nov. 6, 2003, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i). The evidence allowed a reasonable jury to conclude Blair received the money knowing full well he did so for the purpose of laundering it. He directed Nicely to bring him the drug money in the first instance. By the time Nicely returned with the money from the safe, Blair had already devised a cover story for the money – that it was all partner money – as well as a plan to launder the money through a sham real estate company.

The evidence likewise was sufficient to convict defendant on three additional counts of aiding and abetting Nicely in conducting a money laundering transaction. Each of the subject transactions was based on a check drawn by Nicely on her BB&T account. Blair argues the concealment money laundering occurred, if at all, when Nicely and Vassel Clarke deposited money into the BB&T account, not when money was withdrawn. He says what was done with the money after it was deposited into the BB&T account was simply spending money that already had been laundered.

We disagree. The withdrawal of funds from an account qualifies as a “transaction” for purposes of the money laundering statute, which explicitly includes deposits and withdrawals within the definition of “transaction.” However, we reverse defendant’s conviction for obstruction of justice in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1503(a). In his application for admission pro hac vice to practice before the federal court in Virginia, Blair indicated he had not been reprimanded in any court nor had there been any action in any court pertaining to his conduct or fitness as a member of the bar. But the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia had reprimanded Blair in 1984 for witness tampering and suspended his license for six months. Unaware at the time, the District Court granted Blair’s admission.

It is a close question, but we cannot conclude the jury on the record before us, could draw the conclusions suggested by the government. The government was required to establish a nexus between the false statement and the obstruction of the administration of justice. We simply do not find such evidence in the record. Further, we conclude the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to sever.

(Wilkinson, J., writing an opinion for the court as to part IV in which Judge Wynn joins):

Finally, Blair challenges the District Court’s denial of his motion to dismiss count 9 of the indictment. Blair used someone else’s criminally derived proceeds to bankroll counsel for others. He drew on drug dealer Anthony Rakine’s drug money to fund the legal defense of the man charged with murdering Rankine and others. To apply the safe harbor provision of  18 U.S.C. § 1957(f)(1) on these facts would invite the worst kind of abuses, and enable the Al Capones of our day and time to underwrite counsel for their underlings, thus maximizing the power and leverage of the top figures in criminal syndicates. We decline to overturn the § 1957 conviction.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded.


(Traxler, J., dissenting from part IV): I cannot subscribe to the view that the “safe harbor” provision Congress created to shield criminal defense attorneys from prosecution under § 1957 is no longer effective. The actual text of the statute constrains me to conclude the two transactions in question – which secured competent, legitimate criminal defense attorneys for two defendants – are exempt from prosecution under § 1957(f)(1). I respectfully dissent as to part IV.

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