Gangsta rap

Gangsta rap
When Quebec provincial police launched Operation Piranha in February 2004 to investigate a drug-smuggling ring with links to traditional organized crime and the Mafia, they likely weren’t expecting to put the bite on a Montreal lawyer.

But found in their net after about 150 Sûeté du Québec officers carried out a mid-March 2006 raid was Louis D. Pasquin, no stranger to drug dealers or major police probes as a well-known defender of bikers and mobsters from the Hells Angels to the Montreal Mafia’s notorious Cotroni clan.

A member of the Barreau du Québec since 1987, he was charged with committing a crime for the benefit of a criminal organization (better known as gangsterism), conspiring to traffic cocaine, and two counts of drug trafficking. Nine months after the end of the trial, which included at least three former clients of his, Pasquin, on March 6, earned the dubious distinction of being the first lawyer in Canada convicted of gangsterism. On June 12, Quebec Court Judge Carol St-Cyr sentenced 49-year-old Pasquin to serve 54 months or 4.5 years in prison. Despite the jail time imposed, Pasquin calmly walked out of the courthouse a free man after defence lawyer Pierre Panaccio dashed across the street to the Quebec Court of Appeal following the sentencing to complete filing a challenge of his client’s verdict. At press time, Pasquin remained free while awaiting a hearing on his appeal.

He hasn’t practised since his 2006 arrest and on March 24, was provisionally disbarred by the Barreau on the basis of his conviction. Barreau secretary Sylvie Champagne said when the executive committee is informed a lawyer has been found guilty of a criminal offence, “we want to act quickly to protect the public if there is a link to [the lawyer’s] profession.” Even when the offending lawyer appeals his conviction as Pasquin has, “we can act sooner and not wait for an [appeal] decision. If he wins the appeal, then the disbarment is dropped.” She said it can also be dropped if the Barreau’s disciplinary committee doesn’t file a complaint against the lawyer.

For a man who seemed to love the public limelight, Pasquin kept a very guarded and low-key personal life with his circle of close friends apparently made up more of former clients than colleagues. Like both Pasquin and Panaccio, many Quebec lawyers contacted who have worked with or against the diminutive defender over the years also declined to be interviewed for this story. They either didn’t know Pasquin well enough, despite having worked alongside him, or felt unable to comment because of lawyer-client confidentiality.

There were shocked expressions when he appeared at a March hearing accompanied by older brother Richard, himself a disgraced criminal lawyer. It had been about a decade since anyone had seen the elder Pasquin, who had sometimes co-defended Hells Angels with his sibling. There had even been rumours Richard was either in hiding or had been killed and disposed of by unhappy former clients. He hasn’t practised since the fall of 2001, following his sixth administrative disbarment in 19 years for not paying his dues to the Barreau du Québec. The now-retired supportive sibling was back at the sentencing, telling reporters he’s confident his brother will win the appeal.

In sentencing arguments on April 23, Panaccio told St-Cyr that Pasquin began serving a life term the minute he was found guilty. “Mr. Pasquin has since lost his reputation, his house, and his spouse, everything he has worked for,” Panaccio said in asking for a 23-month conditional sentence. He described Pasquin as essentially a social reject since his arrest who has also lost his standing among his professional colleagues. 

Panaccio spoke about how his client had been both recognized and respected in Quebec through the hundreds of stories written about his highly-publicized cases over the years, especially those involving illegal gangs.

At Pasquin’s conviction, Madeleine Giauque and Roger Carrière, the same two Crown prosecutors he had gone up against in the highly-publicized 2002-03 Hells Angels mega-trial that lasted 11 months, jointly recommended he be put behind bars for six years. That would include two years for the gangsterism conviction. “He was involved in trafficking for several months and his friends were criminals,” Giauque noted. Her colleague also pointed out Pasquin “acted as an intermediary between the supplier, Michael Russell, and the head of the organization, Louis-Alain Dauphin.”

Dauphin, considered one of the biggest drug dealers in the lower Laurentians as the ringleader of a trafficking network north of Montreal before his arrest, was friendly with some members of the Hells Angels and supplied them with kilograms of cocaine while operating independently of the biker gang. He pleaded guilty in 2007 to the same charges against Pasquin and is serving a nine-year prison sentence. In addition to participating in clandestine meetings, Carrière said Pasquin spoke in code on the telephone and lent his former house northeast of Montreal to Russell when he came to Quebec to deliver drugs. Panaccio countered that the so-called gang du Nord had been active in drug trafficking long before Pasquin joined them and that at the time of the March 2006 arrests, the gang was in the process of re-organizing by buying its cocaine from his co-accused Carmelo Venneri.

In the end, Pasquin was done in by the close ties with some of his questionable clients that went beyond the professional relationship — the proof caught on wiretapped conversations. In his 40-page judgment, St-Cyr ruled that, “in the eyes of the court, it appears clear that according to all probability, Louis Pasquin was one of the co-conspirators in Dauphin’s organization.”

The judge said the essential elements provided as proof during last year’s trial came from 924 taped communications taken from among 137,750 intercepted by a pair of 2005 court-approved wiretaps. “From the first telephone call interceptions, Pasquin uses a language full of implied meanings, willful vagueness, and notable familiarity,” St-Cyr wrote. “Every time Dauphin and Russell made their subtle allusions to ‘poutine,’ they are beyond a shadow of a doubt referring to the drugs. And when they refer to ‘their friend,’ it can’t be interpreted as anything but their relationship with Louis Pasquin.”

At what was the scheduled start to Pasquin’s trial on March 31 of last year, Panaccio filed a host of petitions, most notably one that his client be tried by himself and another to discard the wiretap evidence. Panaccio suggested his client was in a paradoxical position since he was accused in a case implicating two past clients, Venneri and Jean-Daniel Blais. He said Pasquin feared betraying his solicitor-client confidentiality by testifying against them to clear himself.  Comparing that professional secrecy to “almost a question of national interest,” Panaccio painted his client as the “standard-bearer for other lawyers accused of criminal offences over the years.”

In denying the petitions, St-Cyr sided with prosecutor Giauque, who pointed out: “The status of lawyer isn’t in itself a motive for obtaining a separate trial. The important thing is seeking the truth.”

When the trial finally got underway on April 23, 2008, two police officers were the first to take the stand and detail the vicissitudes of the long shadowing that concluded in a pair of seizures in Montreal totalling 49 kilograms of cocaine. The haul also included more than 136,000 Viagra pills. The officers testified that in the hours leading up to the Oct. 13, 2005 bust, Dauphin and Russell were seen separately going to Pasquin’s private residence in Lachenaie. One thing they said was certain was that Russell had the cocaine in his car when he visited Pasquin that day, a scene described while hidden video was shown in court. Later testimony, based on wiretap evidence, showed Russell prepared his drug transactions from Pasquin’s home.

In order to assure solicitor-client privilege wasn’t violated during the wiretapping of Pasquin’s phones, Sûreté investigators obtained a special warrant and weren’t allowed to listen to the recordings until a judge vetted them. It was determined that, of 71 calls involving Pasquin, 48 were admissible and heard in court.

St-Cyr was informed that Pasquin initially had a professional relationship with Dauphin and his wife that eventually developed into a friendship while he met Russell after the Toronto resident started dating the lawyer’s sister, who was living in Vancouver at the time. The couple visited Pasquin in July 2005. Russell presented himself as a shareholder in a high-tech company, a job involving lots of travel, and a pilot in training who flew regularly between Toronto, Montreal, and Kelowna, B.C. Pasquin later introduced Russell to Dauphin.

When Pasquin took the stand last June, he recalled his sister and Russell spending three weeks vacationing with him that summer in 2005, staying in his nine-room home with a pool and home-theatre set up. He presented Russell with a key to the house and introduced him to Dauphin as “my main client and friend since 2004.” Even after the couple returned to B.C., Russell regularly returned to Quebec on “business trips” and stayed with Pasquin for days at a time. He was often alone because besides his regular office in Montreal, Pasquin had another in the suburb of Châteauguay, where he was a municipal court prosecutor. Tired of Russell’s frequent visits, though, Pasquin once changed the locks after Russell had left the doors unlocked.

Pasquin testified that during the noon-hour of Oct. 13, 2005, Russell had appeared unannounced then turned on his heels and left after being told he wasn’t welcome. “He only stayed a minute,” Pasquin testified. “I didn’t know what he had in his car.”

Questioned by Giauque about the relationship he fostered with his Toronto “brother-in-law” and Dauphin, head of the gang du Nord, Pasquin responded that he never represented Dauphin in drug cases. “[Dauphin] never said he was involved in drug trafficking and I never doubted he wasn’t a drug peddler,” Pasquin said. “It was with great surprise” that Pasquin said he learned that fateful October 2005 day, that Dauphin and Russell were implicated in the cocaine seizure. “That’s when I understood the interest Dauphin had in Russell.”

Giauque got Pasquin to admit that he had been mixed up in $1.3-million debt litigation between Russell and Dauphin, but backed out once he realized that Dauphin’s debt had been caused by the fall 2005 drug bust. In his ruling, St-Cyr noted the improbability that Dauphin and Russell would have struck up a quick drug conspiracy within months of an innocent introduction by Pasquin, saying the lawyer had offered his home to Russell as a pied-à -terre for drug dealing.

The judge concluded that Pasquin had changed the locks only to secure 50 kilograms of cocaine Russell had delivered to the house for Dauphin. “Taking into account there existed proof of conspiracy between Dauphin and Russell, these two considerations allow to determine in what measure, according to the balance of probabilities, Pasquin equally participated in the conspiracy,” St-Cyr wrote. “It’s probable to think [Pasquin] was the initiator of the meeting between Dauphin and Russell and that he knew from the start the nature of their relationship. Indeed, he should have avoided letting his house be a warehouse for cocaine.”

On April 5, Panaccio sought authorization to appeal his client’s conviction and requested a new trial on the grounds that St-Cyr erred on a host of facts and law. They include:
• Omitting to consider elements of proof that were significant and favourable to Pasquin;
• Not allowing access to the entire wiretap recordings judged privileged, restraining Pasquin’s right to a full and entire defence;
• Declaring Pasquin guilty when circumstantial evidence didn’t lead to the sole logical conclusion of guilt;
• Omitting to consider the multiplicity of conspiracies;
• Finding Pasquin guilty on pure speculation and conjecture by: pulling negative inference and promptly declaring a professional relationship exists from purely amicable conversations; personally interpreting certain terms when no expertise was presented by the Crown about the sense given them; by neglecting to give Pasquin benefit of reasonable doubt.
• Refusing to give Pasquin a separate trial when it was evident the status of lawyer allowed him to be tried independently from his co-accused made the trial unjust and unfair, contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Salvatore Brunetti, a third client of Pasquin’s arrested in the Piranha sweep, didn’t learn his lawyer had also been busted until he demanded to see him. Brunetti was a Hells Angel without a home in the summer of 2004. The former full-patch member of the Sherbrooke chapter was the first member of the bikers’ elite Nomads squad to be released from penitentiary after most of the gang was convicted in the mega-trials that followed the massive 2001 Operation Springtime roundup. The largest sweep of biker gangs in Canadian history involved more than 2,000 officers from the RCMP, Sûreté, Montreal police, and nearly 30 municipal forces that participated in more than 280 searches and seizures as well as 138 arrests.

Brunetti was once an enemy of the Hells Angels for plotting to kill two of its members in 1995 while he was part of the rival Rock Machine’s death squad known as the Dark Circle. He pleaded guilty in January 1996. In December 2000, he switched allegiance to the Nomads during a truce and was arrested once again in the Operation Springtime sweep. He pleaded guilty to gangsterism and drug trafficking in November 2002 and was sentenced to three years on top of the 20 months he had spent while in custody. Pasquin was one of four defence lawyers representing the Hells Angels who were paid special legal-aid fees of $750 a day, including weekends.

Pasquin was almost not the first Canadian lawyer to be found guilty of gangsterism. Fellow Quebec defender Benoît Cliche, whose clients have included Hells Angels leader Maurice (Mom) Boucher and the biker boss’s son Francis, came close to winning the title. Like Pasquin, Cliche was also arrested as part of a lengthy police investigation. He was among more than 30 people nabbed Nov. 5, 2003, through Operation Hurricane and accused of participating in the drug-trafficking activities of a criminal organization.

Cliche was charged with helping convicted drug dealer Steven (Bull) Bertrand move large quantities of cocaine while the latter was behind bars serving a seven-year sentence at the federal job-training penitentiary in Laval. Bertrand was a close associate of Mom Boucher and one of a few independent drug dealers tolerated by the Hells Angels in Montreal during the bloody biker war. Besides being accused of conspiring to traffic in cocaine and of conspiring to traffic in coke with Bertrand, Cliche was also charged with trafficking in drugs for the profit, or under the direction of, a criminal organization and facilitating a crime for the benefit of a gang.

Despite a mistrial in November 2007, Cliche remained charged with gangsterism until being acquitted in April 2008.

Cases like Cliche’s and Pasquin’s are exceptional, however. “Lawyers are not above the law, they’re citizens like any other,” Giauque told reporters the day St-Cyr handed down the guilty verdict. “But we shouldn’t take from this that a majority of lawyers engage in dishonest practices. It’s very much to the contrary.”

“It presents a picture to the public that doesn’t make us look good,” said Rénald Beaudry, past president of the province’s defence lawyers’ association. “It’s not great.” Calling it sad and unfortunate “to know that we have a rotten apple in our ranks.” He said, Pasquin’s situation is a perfect example of what can happen when certain lawyers get too close to their clients. “You have to keep your distance from those clients and not fraternize,” said Beaudry, whose two-year term as head of l’Association des avocats de la défense ended in May. “When that happens, sometimes you get results like this.”

He acknowledged Pasquin is well known in Quebec for being a preferred lawyer of mobsters and gang members and who worked primarily alone because “big firms are more apt to represent bankers and not Hells Angels.”

Robert La Haye, a veteran criminologist often called on as an expert by Quebec media to comment on unusual or high-profile cases, agreed with Beaudry by stressing the importance of lawyers always keeping a distance between their offices and their clients  —  especially if those clients are members of recognized criminal groups. “It’s very, very delicate for a lawyer [with such clients] not to appear to be engaged in crime,” La Haye told Canadian Lawyer. “They must be prudent not to get caught up in things that can be interpreted by police or the courts as being a co-conspirator by being seen as acting as a gofer or messenger.” Even more important is to be “very careful not to be trapped, especially in wiretaps” where conversations can be misinterpreted.

In Pasquin’s case, La Haye said “as soon as he was arrested, I wondered how he got there. Even when they aren’t charged, [lawyers with known criminal clients] live with that fear, the Sword of Damocles, that they will be brought down too.” La Haye knows well the potential perils of being associated with the crimes that his clients are charged with. He is a specialist in representing people accused of being where indecent acts take place, from bawdy houses to swingers’ clubs. Unlike Pasquin’s gangsterism conviction, La Haye has never been involved in a sex scandal despite having had numerous clients involved in highly-publicized cases of that nature.

He even has a pair of Supreme Court victories on behalf of those clients. In 1999, the high court overturned a 1998 Quebec Court of Appeal decision that had found a La Haye client guilty of operating a bawdy house by permitting lap dancing at her Joliette strip bar. Six years earlier, the Supreme Court acquitted the owner of Les Salons Pussy Cat in Montreal, where customers could masturbate while watching nude dancers, of the same offence.

Pasquin has had similar clients over the years, in particular Montreal hooker Chantal Daoust. She began a one-woman crusade in late 1991 to stop police harassment of streetwalkers by arguing that federal anti-soliciting laws hadn’t curbed prostitution, but rather either scattered it throughout the city or drove it underground. Helping her defend against a soliciting charge in Montreal Municipal Court in 1992, Pasquin argued the country’s anti-soliciting law contravened the Canadian Charter of Rights by asking the judge why dentists or carpenters can advertise their services, but not a prostitute. He tried unsuccessfully to have Canada’s 1985 anti-soliciting law — upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990 — struck down on the argument: “We all sell ourselves. If you’re going to select which part of the body to sell, it’s discrimination.”

Pasquin also once co-defended two Montreal men charged with plotting to blow up a loaded airliner in 1986. Although both were convicted the following year and sentenced to life terms, they were acquitted in March 1992 on the eve of a new trial. Pasquin and his partner had filed their notice of appeal in January 1987, but it wasn’t heard until November of 1990. Quebec Superior Court Justice Henry Steinberg agreed with Pasquin and the other lawyer that the delay violated their clients’ constitutional rights to speedy judicial process and fundamental justice by describing the nearly six-year wait as “exquisite agony.”

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