Prosecutors nix deal with star witness in federal drug trial

NEW YORK (AP) " The prosecution of the nephews of Venezuela's first lady took a blow Tuesday when a U.S. prosecutor told his star witness his cooperation deal is getting torn up because of his lies.

With Manhattan federal court jurors watching, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Quigley confronted government informant Jose Santos-Pena after a defense attorney played the audio of recorded prison phone calls that the lawyer said proves Santos-Pena in recent weeks engaged in drug trafficking from prison and lied about communicating with his son.

The defense lawyer " Randall Jackson " presented the evidence to the surprise of prosecutors who have grown increasingly disappointed with Santos-Pena and his son, another informant, after discovering last spring they were engaging in drug trafficking for years while earning up to $2 million working for the Drug Enforcement Administration and others to help capture suspected drug dealers.

Both recently pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in the hopes of reducing potential prison sentences by cooperating with U.S. authorities, particularly in the case brought against Efrain Campo, 30, and Francisco Flores, 31, nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores. They are on trial on charges that they conspired last year to import more than 1,700 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. before they were arrested in Haiti and brought to New York.

Santos-Pena completed his fourth and final day of testimony Tuesday by addressing an unusual series of questions from the prosecutor.

"Sir, you were told repeatedly that if you lied, your cooperation agreement would be ripped up?" Quigley said to Santos-Pena.

"Yes sir," Santos-Pena responded.

"And you now understand that your cooperation agreement is getting ripped up, correct?" the prosecutor asked.

"No sir," Santos-Pena said.

"You understand that you are not getting a 5K letter, correct?" Quigley added, referring to a form letter that the government writes to a sentencing judge to request leniency in return for substantial cooperation.

"No sir," Santos-Pena said.

"You should," the prosecutor snapped.

The bitter exchange illustrated the difficulty Santos-Pena has presented prosecutors, who now must argue to jurors that other evidence, including written and recorded communications by the nephews, should be enough to convict them of charges that could lead to decades in prison.

Regardless of how the case ends, Jackson pulled off a legal gem and gave the defense reason for hope by unearthing the jailhouse conversations and confronting Santos-Pena, a husky man in dull prison garb who seemed nervous as he spoke through a Spanish interpreter.

Jackson, who until last year worked in the Manhattan federal prosecutor's office where he gained a reputation for his aggressive role in high-profile and complex cases, got Santos-Pena to acknowledge that he spoke by telephone to his son in the prison about the Venezuela case even though he knew he was not supposed to be doing so.

And Santos-Pena also admitted he spoke to his son about a drug dealer on the calls.

"You're still engaging in drug trafficking, right?" Jackson asked.

"No sir," Santos-Pena answered.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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