Defense attorneys in the criminal conspiracy trial of former U.S. budget director Bert Lance and three other defendants today accused the presiding judge of being biased in favor of the government and requested that he remove himself from the case.
"Nothing does greater violence to our system of justice than a judge acting out of bias," said defense attorney Erwin Mitchell. "For the court to fail to excuse himself in this case would make a mockery out of justice."
The defense attorneys said they were making the motion as a result of remarks made last Friday by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Moye Jr., during a meeting in his chambers. The meeting had been called to try to reduce the growing tensions between defense and prosecution attorneys in the case.
One of the defense attorneys, Richard Young, quoted Moye as saying that if, in fact, there had been press leaks and other acts of misconduct by government attorneys, as is alleged by the defense, Lance simply "could have whispered in the president's ear" and have the prosecutors "removed to Siberia or worse."
Lance, who served as budget director in the Carter administration until forced to resign in September 1977 because of allegations about his financial dealings while a Georgia banker, is both a political and personal friend of the president.
Judge Moye denied the defense's motion, saying simply, "Counsel have misinterpreted what I said" during the Friday meeting. The defense motion was made while the jury was out of the courtroom.
The judge, who apparently was surprised that the defense attorneys would make public remarks made in the privacy of his chambers, said he had drawn a different conclusion from the meeting.
"I though the conference Friday was an indication of open-mindedness on the part of all. I was very happy," he said.
To some court observers, the extraordinary attack by defense attorneys on the judge was regarded as a bold attempt to force him into taking what the defense sees as a more balanced approach to the trial.
But experts who were questioned could not remember defense attorneys every breaking the privacy of a judge's chamber to make such a point in the middle of a trial.
Chief prosecutor Edwin Tomko, angered by the defense's interpretation of his remarks at the Friday conference, called the defense tactic "outrageous."
He said the defense attorneys had "violated the confidence" of the meeting and had "misconstrued and misstated what I said."
Lance and his codefendants are accused of 33 counts of misapplying bank funds, falsifying loan records and defrauding the government to gain $20 million in bank loans. All four defendants have pleaded innocent of the charges.
The trail is now in its seventh week and not a single substantive witness has taken the stand. One reason for the slow pace is that defense attorneys have force the government to bring in expert witnesses to identify thousands of pages of bank documents in evidence.
Defense attorneys indicated that they may appeal the judge's denial of their motion to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.