MIAMI, JAN. 28 -- U.S. District Court Judge William M. Hoeveler refused today to throw out drug-trafficking charges against former Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega but warned the government that its conduct in the case may prompt him to take action against the prosecutors.
Hoeveler denied a defense motion to drop the charges because the government used taped telephone conversations between Noriega and his defense team to pursue new leads in the investigation.
"I am concerned about the way these things have developed," Hoeveler said, clearly disturbed. "Dismissal is too extreme a sanction. I would suggest I find no basis in what has been presented to date to conclude that the defendant's case has been hurt to prevent him from getting a fair trial."
But Hoeveler warned that he may restrict the kind of evidence that the government may present or the witnesses it calls if the defense team can demonstrate harm to its case.
The judge also implored the lawyers to prevent further delays in the trial. "This case is set to go to trial on June 24, and I will expect it will go to trial on that day," he said.
The tapes episode began in November when Cable News Network broadcast excerpts of taped telephone conversations made by Noriega from the Metropolitan Correctional Center here. An investigation disclosed that government investigators in the case had obtained 52 of 162 tape recordings of Noriega's conversations to study.
The tapes controversy led to an unusual hearing in which the defense team quizzed prosecutors and Drug Enforcement Administration agents on the witness stand and prosecutors examined the defense.
In the end, Hoeveler said he had not been convinced that the defense strategy was compromised by any conversations that were conducted between Noriega and his defense team and reviewed by investigators. He noted that, between Jan. 28 and Nov. 3 last year, Noriega was visited 69 times by members of his defense team.
Hoeveler was most troubled by the prosecutors' method of obtaining the tapes. They subpoenaed the tapes but did not submit their subpoena to the court, which would have tipped off the defense team to their probe.
"I am concerned about the way access to the tapes was obtained," Hoeveler said. "If anything beneficial came out of the CNN debacle, we learned of that situation and put a stop to it."
The defense lawyers also contended that a key government witness was allowed to review the tapes and that his analysis of the calls made its way into the prosecutors' hands.
Prosecutors denied reading the analysis or reviewing excerpts of conversations between Noriega and his lawyers.
In other action, the knotty issue of how Noriega's lawyers would be paid was resolved when defense lawyers Frank Rubino and Jon May agreed to accept a $75-an-hour government wage. Wrangling over the fees consumed months of court time as the defense sought to have Noriega's various foreign bank accounts freed.
Hoeveler had given the two until today to decide whether they wanted to remain on the case.
Late last week, an Austrian court advised the lawyers that it has freed $1.6 million in one of Noriega's accounts. That money is to be used to pay other lawyers in the case to this point and to cover what Rubino said are his unpaid expenses for the last year.