El Chapo lawyer suggested hiring belly dancer to visit accused drug lord in jail

By Steve Frank

/ CBS News

One of El Chapo's lawyers may be banned

New York — One of the attorneys representing Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in his blockbuster trial is in hot water after allegedly suggesting he would hire a belly dancer to visit the accused drug lord in jail.

Lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman made the suggestion in text messages with his mistress and client, former restaurateur Sarma Melngailis, the New York Post reported Saturday night.

Melngailis, known as the "Vegan Bernie Madoff," was arrested in May 2016 for swindling investors and shortchanging employees of her now-shuttered Pure Food and Wine vegan eatery in Manhattan's Gramercy Park.

Jeffrey Lichtman (left), one of the attorneys who represents Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, may be barred from visiting his client after allegedly suggesting to his then-mistress and client, Sarma Melngailis (right), he was planning to hire a belly dancer to visit the accused drug lord in jail. AP Photos/Mary Altaffer (Lichtman)/Kathy Willens (Melngailis)

Lichtman, while working for El Chapo, took on Melngailis' case in February 2017. She eventually agreed to plead guilty to charges of grand larceny, criminal tax fraud and a scheme to defraud in exchange for a four-month prison term, the Post reported.

The Post said it was provided hundreds of text messages between Melngailis and Lichtman from February 2017 to May 2018.

"Is it bad that I'm hiring a belly dancer to be Chapo's daily visitor," read a text that Lichtman sent to Melngailis dated March 16, 2017.

In another text, Lichtman conceded a belly dancer would be "kinda sleazy" but that he felt bad for the drug kingpin because he "has no pretty women visiting him."

Jurors in the El Chapo trial were questioned Monday about their potential exposure to media coverage of Lichtman's belly dancer texts, but Judge Brian Cogan said all 12 indicated they were unaware of the story, the Post reported.

"[Lichtman] probably deserves a little slap on the wrist for very, very bad behavior," CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman told CBSN Monday. "But in terms of keeping him from his client completely at the time that you're talking about — the client's defense and finally closing arguments — I think that's a step too far."

A courtroom sketch shows accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sitting during his trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York Dec. 18, 2018.
A courtroom sketch shows accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sitting during his trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York on Dec. 18, 2018. Reuters/Jane Rosenberg

El Chapo is on trial in federal court in Brooklyn for allegedly smuggling tons of narcotics into the U.S. as the head of the murderous Sinaloa cartel. He has reportedly only been able to see his legal team and his children during the trial.

Prosecutors have indicated they plan to rest their case next week.

"I do think [prosecutors] have a strong case," Klieman said, "despite the fact that these witnesses are every bit as bad as El Chapo, and some would say even worse."

Klieman credits El Chapo's IT specialist, Cristian Rodriguez, for helping the FBI crack the custom encrypted communications system Rodriguez created for the Sinaloa cartel, providing prosecutors with recordings and text messages that corroborated witness testimony.

"Because of El Chapo's obsession with wanting to know what was going on with everybody — he had to snoop on everyone's conversations — he winds up infiltrating the network that he had set up," said Klieman.

"I cannot imagine, even if he's not convicted of the top count, even he's not numero uno racketeer of the Sinaloa cartel, he's certainly up there enough to be convicted of everything else, in which case he's never getting out of prison," Klieman added.

Recapturing "El Chapo"
Recapturing "El Chapo" 37 photos

First published on January 14, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

lichtman.png A courtroom sketch shows accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sitting during his trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York Dec. 18, 2018. Recapturing "El Chapo"

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