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Saturday, November 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New woes for lawyers in drug-ring investigation?

Seattle Times staff reporter

New details about the role of two lawyers caught up in a drug ring came out in court Friday during the sentencing of one of the organization's couriers.

In describing the role of Wesley Cornett, the drug runner, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Friedman said lawyers James L. White and A. Mark Vanderveen trailed Cornett and even tried to make him take a lie-detector test — all in an effort to see if he was a government snitch.

White and Vanderveen, criminal defense attorneys, already have pleaded guilty in connection with the federal drug case. At one point, Vanderveen had been paid to act as Cornett's lawyer.

Friedman also disclosed the existence of a continuing criminal investigation that could ensnare other criminal defense attorneys.

Cornett and Douglas Spink, a second drug courier who also helped the government, got special deals in exchange for their cooperation.

Cornett pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine and 100 kilograms or more of marijuana; Spink pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute 5 kilos or more of cocaine.

Each was facing a mandatory minimum of 10 years for their roles in the drug ring run by Robert Kesling, 27, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute cocaine and marijuana and is awaiting sentencing.

Friday, Cornett, 28, and Spink, 34, each received a three-year sentence from U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez, who accepted joint recommendations for leniency from defense attorneys and the government.

When they get out of prison, Cornett and Spink will be subject to five years' supervised release. They also will live the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders because of their roles as informants, defense attorneys and prosecutors said.

Last summer, White, 49, a former part-time Edmonds judge, and Vanderveen, 46, a former prosecutor and police officer, each pleaded guilty to felony charges and are awaiting sentencing.

White pleaded guilty to money laundering. He admitted he received $100,000 in cash in a backpack from Kesling, knowing it was drug money, and hid it in his Edmonds home. Separately, the government has moved to seize an additional $150,000 in alleged drug money that Kesling paid White and that White deposited into his Merrill Lynch account.

Vanderveen pleaded guilty to failing to file a report that he had received more than $10,000 in cash as required by federal law. Vanderveen admitted that White had paid him $20,000 to represent Cornett; White admitted the $20,000 was from the backpack cash Kesling had given him.

A search warrant in the drug case includes transcripts from secretly recorded conversations in which Kesling promised to take care of Cornett's legal fees if he got into trouble.

Friedman said shortly after Cornett's arrest, he started getting cellphone calls from Vanderveen, whom he had never met, the prosecutor said.

Friedman said Vanderveen knew that Cornett had been arrested and was primarily interested in learning the location of more than $1 million worth of marijuana that had been stored in a trailer in Woodinville. Suspecting that Cornett was cooperating with the government, White conducted "surveillance" on him after Cornett left a meeting with Vanderveen, Friedman said.

Later, Vanderveen and White attempted to make Cornett take a lie-detector test to find out what happened to the marijuana. By then, Cornett had agreed to wear a body wire and to allow federal agents to record his phone calls.

When Cornett tried to duck the lie-detector test by saying his father had recommended against it, Vanderveen warned Cornett that doing so would cause Kesling's organization to "think you took the marijuana," according to Friedman.

Fortunately for Cornett — and for the government's hopes of not blowing his cover — the polygrapher declined to administer the test once he learned its purpose, Friedman said.

Criminal defense attorneys representing White and Vanderveen declined comment Friday on the disclosures made at Cornett's sentencing.

During Spink's sentencing, Friedman disclosed the existence of a continuing investigation that could entangle other lawyers.

For example, the prosecutor noted that Spink sent a letter to the court, which is under seal, in which Spink said he believed that his efforts to cooperate with the government were "being compromised" by his former attorney.

Friedman referred to a "conflict of interest" between Spink and his attorney. Spink's cooperation has "given rise to independent investigation of others, including members of our bar," Friedman said.

He said the matters under investigation involving attorneys relate to their obligations to their clients and to the court. He characterized Spink's information as "very significant" and likened it to "turning on a light in a room."

Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or plewis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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