Prosecutors are asking a federal judge to dismiss the attorneys for Erik Nunez, one of Darren Sharper’s alleged cohorts in a scheme to drug and rape women, on the grounds that lawyers Sara Johnson and Herbert Larson have a conflict because the retired Saints defensive star has paid for Nunez’s defense.
Federal prosecutors claim that Sharper’s bankrolling of Nunez’s defense team creates divided loyalties. They also say they aim to use Sharper’s payments to further suggest a criminal conspiracy between the two men.
The legal filing marks the first time it’s become public that Sharper has footed at least some of the legal bills for Nunez, with whom the former All-Pro stands accused of raping two women at Sharper’s condo on Tchoupitoulas Street in September 2013.
According to the government’s filing, Sharper and Nunez agreed, soon after the alleged rapes, “to destroy evidence related to those events.” After Nunez was arrested, Sharper sent $20,000 to $40,000 to someone to pay for Nunez’s bond. He then provided at least $10,000 to help Nunez pay his attorneys, the filing states.
Nunez later admitted to a confidential informant that Sharper was paying his legal bills, prosecutors say. When Sharper pleaded guilty in New Orleans federal court in May and then admitted three rapes in state court in New Orleans, Nunez told the source that he was “fearful his attorneys might not be protecting his interests,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark Miller and Michael McMahon stated in Tuesday’s filing.
They described Sharper’s payments for Nunez as “highly probative of the association between them and allows for the inference that Sharper did so because of the illegalities they had committed together.”
Johnson declined to comment on the alleged payments, citing a protective order in the federal case.
Sharper has yet to be sentenced in either New Orleans court. He is slated to serve about nine more years behind bars after pleading guilty or no contest in the rapes or attempted rapes of nine women in Louisiana, California, Arizona and Nevada.
Nunez has denied any role in the drugging and rape scheme to which Sharper pleaded guilty. Nunez has pleaded not guilty in both New Orleans courts.
One attorney recently described Nunez, a 28-year-old former steakhouse waiter, as “roadkill” in the pursuit by authorities of Sharper and a pal, former St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office Deputy Brandon Licciardi.
Licciardi faces aggravated rape and human trafficking charges in the state case, plus drug conspiracy and witness tampering charges in the federal case. He has pleaded not guilty in both courts.
Prosecutors call Nunez a rapist, and, like Licciardi, he faces a mandatory life prison term if convicted on one of two aggravated rape counts from a December indictment in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. His more recent federal charge is for allegedly destroying a phone to scuttle a grand jury probe into the scheme to which Sharper pleaded guilty.
Nunez has three attorneys: Johnson and Larson in the federal case and Jeffrey Smith in the state prosecution.
The lawyers could wind up in the dicey position of being witnesses in the case, based on Sharper’s payments for Nunez’s defense, the federal prosecutors contend.
“Courts have recognized that payment of attorney’s fees by third parties, particularly co-defendants, is fraught with danger,” they argued.
Authorities are trying to establish Nunez’s culpability through statements from Licciardi, who claimed he saw Nunez walk out of Sharper’s room the night the rapes allegedly happened; through texts Nunez sent the next day to the two women; and through information provided by Sharper as a condition of a four-state plea deal under which he admitted guilt.
Federal prosecutors and attorneys for Sharper are expected soon to state their case for why the ex-NFL star’s complex plea agreement involving four states and federal court is acceptable.
U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo has set a Sept. 10 hearing date on several issues, including the attorney conflict claim, although the government recently requested a delay.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.