McALLEN — “Give him a chance.”
Thus implored McAllen hotelier Sunil Wadhwani of U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa during a status conference held in federal court Friday afternoon.
Wadhwani was speaking of Michael Wynne, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney turned defense attorney who has been representing him in a federal bribery case since Wadhwani first became aware of the FBI’s investigation into his Weslaco Motel 6 project last year.
Progress on the case was halted in early December after federal prosecutors alleged Wynne has a professional conflict of interest in continuing to represent Wadhwani — divided loyalties that could hinder Wadhwani’s right to effective counsel.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto “Bobby” Lopez Jr. spelled out those concerns during a Dec. 2 conference that had previously been meant to serve as the final pretrial hearing in the case.
According to the prosecutor, Wynne previously served as legal counsel for other people involved in the case, as well as a related bribery case regarding the $38.5 million rehabilitation of Weslaco’s water treatment facilities.
Wadhwani’s co-defendant in the hotel bribery case, Weslaco businessman Ricardo “Rick” Quintanilla, is also a defendant in the water plant case — along with former Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner Arturo “A.C.” Cuellar, and Rio Grande City-area attorney Daniel J. Garcia.
It’s with Garcia that the conflict may arise, Lopez alleged, as Wynne represented Garcia early on in the water plant investigation.
Wynne, however, argued that his representation of Garcia was so long ago he could neither recall pertinent facts from his service, nor could he find notes about it in his case files.
Wynne was also involved in conversations with another man associated with the hotel scheme, Wadhwani’s executive assistant and general contractor, Anil Uttamchandani.
Uttamchandani reached out to Wynne after the FBI came to his home. The government alleges the man may have at the time thought Wynne was his attorney, though Wynne said the extent of his conversation involved recommending another attorney to represent Uttamchandani — Wynne’s former, and very brief, law partner, Eric Cassidy.
At one point, Hinojosa wondered if the “conflict belongs to the whole law firm.”
“That is correct, your honor,” Lopez replied.
To date, Uttamchandani has not been charged with a crime, though he was served with a “target letter” by the government. Lopez later conceded an argument made by Wynne — that the statute of limitations against Uttamchandani may have indeed run out.
After hearing from both sides in that December conference, the judge grew concerned enough to assign a neutral third party to advise Wadhwani of his rights, and of the nature of Wynne’s potential conflicts. He assigned the task to Richard Gould, a federal public defender.
“I explained several of the potential conflicts,” Gould said as the two sides reconvened for a status update last Friday.
“(Wadhwani) likes the job that Mr. Wynne has been doing. … He’s invested a lot of time and money in the case,” Gould said.
Lopez again reiterated the government’s belief that Wynne’s representation of and communications with multiple other people involved in the case puts him in conflict.
Hinojosa cautioned Wadhwani that proceeding with Wynne as his attorney would make him ineligible to use ineffective counsel as an appeal strategy should he be found guilty at trial.
He also explained the severity of the allegation. “The right to counsel is very important in the United States,” Hinojosa said. “As judges, we get very concerned when somebody gets in a situation where there may be a conflict.”
It was at that point that Wadhwani asked if he could address the court. “Mr. Wynne has been there since the very first day,” Wadhwani said, before adding a moment later, “He’s a good man.”
“Give him a chance,” the soft-spoken businessman said.
Hinojosa said the paramount issue is not giving Wynne a chance, but in preserving Wadhwani’s rights.
With Wadhwani seemingly convinced to continue retaining Wynne, the matter appeared wrapped up — until Lopez spoke up once more. “I believe that this situation rises from a potential conflict to an actual conflict,” the prosecutor said.
When Hinojosa asked why, Lopez, Wynne, Wadhwani and a coterie of other defense attorneys gathered for a private bench conference, which was later sealed.
After just under 10 minutes of discussion, Hinojosa dismissed the attorneys pending their next meeting in mid-February.