Judge in classified docs case slams prosecutors before dismissing hearing on potential conflicts of interest

Prosecutors say that co-defendants' attorneys have conflicts of interest.

October 12, 2023, 6:41 PM

The federal judge overseeing the special counsel's classified documents case chastised prosecutors before she dismissed a hearing on potential conflicts of interest related to the co-defendants' attorneys, Thursday in Ft. Pierce, Florida.

Special counsel Jack Smith's team had requested the hearings for U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon to determine if attorneys for co-defendants Carlos De Oliveira and Walt Nauta have any conflicts of interest arising from their past and current representations of witnesses who the government may call at trial.

De Oliveira, the property manager at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, and Nauta, Trump's longtime aide, in August pleaded not guilty, along with Trump, to obstruction charges related to alleged attempts to delete Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage, after Trump pleaded not guilty in June to 37 criminal counts related to his handling of classified materials.

Thursday's hearing was derailed when prosecutors called for an "absolute bar" of Nauta's attorney Stanley Woodward's ability to cross-examine one of the witnesses he previously represented and present arguments before a jury at trial. The prosecutors arguments presented in court were allegedly broader than what the government previously put in their court papers.

After Woodward pushed back on the government's argument, which he claimed was new, Cannon lashed out at special counsel prosecutors and dismissed the court, saying the hearing could not proceed because of prosecutors' "last minute" arguments, and admonishing the special counsel's team for "wasting the court's time."

The judge said she would potentially schedule another hearing to resolve the issues.

ABC News has previously identified the witness at the center of the government's argument as former Mar-a-Lago IT director Yuscil Taveras, who was referred to as "Trump Employee 4" in Smith's indictment. He is not currently being represented by Woodward.

PHOTO: In this Aug. 10, 2022, file photo, an aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is shown in Palm Beach, Fla.
In this Aug. 10, 2022, file photo, an aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is shown in Palm Beach, Fla.
Steve Helber/AP, FILE

Special counsel prosecutor David Harbach said during the proceedings that they could discuss with the court in very specific terms why Taveras should not be cross-examined by Woodward, adding they intend to call Taveras at trial.

"I don't know why they have any opinion of my representation of Trump employee 4," Woodward said in response.

Woodward told the court that he could not possibly advise Nauta on whether or not to waive any potential conflicts of interest until he understood the full scope of the potential conflicts the government raised.

"Without question, Mr. Woodward should be foreclosed from cross examining Trump Employee 4," Harbach said to Cannon during the proceedings, explaining that Taveras changed his testimony to a Florida grand jury following receipt of a target letter, and that Woodward stopped representing him. ABC News was first to report about the target letter.

"That's a different argument" than what was in your papers, Cannon said.

"No," Harbach replied, to which Cannon asked, "Where did you make that?"

Harbach then told Cannon that Nauta should be advised of the potential conflict of interest issues at trial.

"Advising him is different than a request for a cross-examination ban," the judge said.

"'Trump Employee 4,' while repped by Mr. Woodward, testified one way; later, ceasing to be represented by Woodward, changed his testimony," Harbach said.

In an earlier hearing Thursday, De Oliviera waived the potential conflict of interest, repeatedly saying he's fine with his current attorney, John Irving, continuing to represent him despite alleged conflicts of interest Irving might have from representing potential government witnesses in the case.

Judge Cannon pressed De Oliveira multiple times, asking him if he understood the potential conflicts that could arise.

While De Oliveira insisted he understood the issue, he appeared to struggle to describe in his own words the potential conflicts of interest his lawyer could face in the case. Earlier in the hearing, De Oliveira said he is more comfortable speaking in English than writing.

During the hearing, Irving said that the three witnesses he previously represented obtained separate counsel and that if they testify, the other attorney, Donnie Murell, will cross examine them.

Judge Cannon, who can reject his waiver, has yet to rule on the matter.

In the subsequent hearing, Harbach told the judge that, unlike De Oliveira. Taveras has not waived his conflict of interest.

Cannon said the government's "failure to raise" the scope of what they are seeking "makes it difficult for the court and the parties to resolve" the issues "on the fly," saying the issues they raised require a "full discussion" after both parties have had an opportunity to properly examine the issue.

Prosecutors have said that they did not include the issue in their filing because it wasn't necessary to hold Thursday's hearing.

According to previous court filings, Smith's team argues that Woodward's potential cross examination of his former client "raises two principal dangers."

"First, the conflict may result in the attorney's improper use or disclosure of the client's confidences during the cross-examination," the special counsel has said, according to the filings.

"Second, the conflict may cause the attorney to pull his punches during cross-examination, perhaps to protect the client's confidences or to advance the attorney's own personal interest," the special counsel said in the filing.

Woodward also represents two additional individuals who could also be called as witnesses at trial. Their identities have not publicly been disclosed.

Smith's team has also argued that conflicts may arise from Irving's representation of De Oliveira, given that Irving represents at least four others who have been questioned by special counsel investigators.

The clients include a maintenance worker at Mar-a-Lago who served as head of maintenance before De Oliveira; a former receptionist and assistant to Trump; and a witness who has information about the movement of boxes from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, according to prosecutors.

"Mr. Irving's representation of the three potential witnesses raises the possibility that he might be in the position of cross-examining current clients," the special counsel has said, according to the public filings.

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