BROOKLYN, New York — A who's who of hip-hop turned out Wednesday (November 30) for closing arguments in the federal money-laundering trial of Inc. principals Irv and Chris Gotti.
Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Russell Simmons, Damon Dash and Fat Joe — as well as professional poker player Phil Ivey — were all on hand in support of the rap moguls. The Gotti brothers are accused of cleaning more than $1 million in illicit drug profits for convicted New York crack kingpin Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff (see "Irv Gotti Pleads Not Guilty, Released On $1 Million Bond"). They face up to 20 years behind bars apiece if convicted (see "Prosecution Rests In Gotti Brothers Trial").
"[They're] my boys, my blood — if they take a hit, I take a hit," Ja Rule told reporters outside the Brooklyn federal courthouse. Simmons characterized the prosecution's case against the Gottis (born Irving and Christopher Lorenzo) as a "tremendous waste of resources." He also questioned the government's motives when, more than three years after the shooting death of Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay in Queens, those responsible for the DJ's death remain at large (see "Jam Master Jay, Run-DMC DJ, Killed In Shooting"). "Poverty and ignorance [are] more of a problem in our community than convicting our poets," Simmons added.
The day's proceedings began with prosecutor Carolyn Pokorny's summation, during which she reiterated the government's position: that the Gottis laundered cash for "one of the biggest, baddest, most dangerous drug lords in New York City." Bags stuffed with thousands of dollars, she said, were being toted to the Gottis during the course of several years. "Dirty, filthy dope money came in," she explained, and the brothers, in return, supplied McGriff — who headed his own gang of drug dealers, dubbed "the Supreme Team" — with legitimate checks written on the Inc.'s corporate bank accounts.
The Gottis, Pokorny said, "[had] to know [McGriff's cash] was bad, that it came from some kind of a crime" and "made an effort to hide what was going on. They helped a drug lord hide what he was doing." She added that they paid more than $50,000 for hotel stays and trips McGriff had taken — in effect helping him "masquerade around the country like a music executive."
She further accused the Gottis of covertly cutting sham checks for McGriff that were camouflaged as investments in a straight-to-DVD 2001 film called "Crime Partners," starring Ice-T and Snoop Dogg. A similar cash-for-check ruse, she said, was employed to secure the rights to transform the novel of the same name, penned by Donald Goines, into a film from Goines' estate. Additionally, Pokorny told the jurors that the "cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake" was Irv Gotti's involvement in securing a $1 million soundtrack deal with Island/ Def Jam for the film, "which was made with drug money."
Later, Pokorny said Irv supplied McGriff with free songs for the soundtrack from some of the artists on his label's roster, including Ashanti and Ja Rule.
Jay-Z, Ashanti, Russell Simmons and Ja Rule in court on Wednesday
"Did they give him millions of dollars [in trips, checks and free songs from platinum artists] for free, or did they take drug money?" she said. "There's overwhelming proof that they did," including text-messaged exchanges between the brothers Gotti and McGriff. She also concentrated on a document appearing to be the Inc.'s overhead budget, which was seized from Chris' Manhattan office when the government raided the label's base of operations in 2003 (see "Drugs, Friends & Allegations: Inside The Murder Inc. Raid"). Several of McGriff's most trusted drug dealers were on the Inc.'s payroll, she pointed out, including Ja's one-time bodyguard and Irv's driver. The latter was busted in 2001 for drug possession, and the Gottis paid $50,000 to bail him out — more evidence that pointed to the brothers' guilt, she insisted.
Pokorny, sensing (correctly) that the defense would focus its attack on the credibility of the government's witnesses, commended them for stepping forward and testifying, considering McGriff was "a street thug" and "the most dangerous man in New York." Before beseeching the jurors to find guilt, she charged that the defense team tried to "distract [the jury] with talk about Ja Rule and Jay-Z," who, conveniently, were seated in the front row.
Chris' lawyer, Gerald Shargel, said the government's entire case was "built on speculation and guesswork" and accused the prosecution of "looking at [all of the evidence obtained via the Inc. raid] through dirty glasses." He said the government didn't have a shred of evidence suggesting the Gottis received money from McGriff.
The government's "pathetic" case is so "weak that it's a shame those two men are sitting there," he said, pointing to Irv and Chris. He told the jurors it didn't matter that McGriff was New York's most lethal drug dealer (a classification Irv's attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, would later question) or that he was a dealer at all. The Gottis committed no crime, Shargel said, and the government was trying to show guilt by association.
"There is nothing illegal about giving financial backing for a movie. It's not illegal to be friends with a criminal," he said. "It's not illegal to talk to a criminal. It's not illegal to pay for someone's trips. It's not illegal to post bail for someone. Knowing criminals and doing business with criminals doesn't make you a criminal."
He reiterated the basis for his entire defense, saying the association between McGriff and the Gottis afforded the music moguls added street credibility and helped ward off threats to their empire and their lives. As for those trips? Shargel said money was no object to the Gottis, what with "money flowing [into the label] like a mighty stream."
He also attacked the government's witnesses, saying some of them were self-admitted criminals and liars and that their testimonies seem contradictory.
"This is a case that has not been proven," said Shargel, who has represented several high-profile clients in the past, including reputed mobster John Gotti. "This has gone on long enough. Irv and Chris are not guilty."
In his closing, Lefcourt said the government spent years trying to find evidence of money-laundering that wasn't there and was desperate for a conviction — prosecutors "had their eyes on the prize," as he put it. And Lefcourt, like Simmons, wondered if there was something beneath the surface that fueled the investigation.
"There's a cultural divide between these tables," Lefcourt said. "The prosecution doesn't like rap music. They don't like the way they talk. They don't like the lifestyle. They don't like the name Murder Inc. They don't like the name Irv Gotti. Well, too bad. In this country, they have no business making [the Gottis] the prize."
The jury will begin deliberations Thursday morning, and a verdict is expected before the weekend.