In October 1989, Michael Abbell, Harvard Law graduate and ex-Justice Department official, announced he was leaving the Washington, D.C., law firm of Kaplan, Russin & Vecchi. Some of the firm's clients were upset about published reports that Abbell was representing Cali cartel kingpins.

Abbell declared he was not going to be pressured into forsaking unpopular litigants. "My duty is to my clients -- to see that their rights are properly represented within the legal system," he told The Washington Post at the time.

Abbell's decision to leave the law firm -- and then to file an unusual civil claim over millions seized from cartel accounts in New York -- were two crucial steps down a path that led to his racketeering indictment last week in Miami. He was charged along with two other defense lawyers with using his legal skills to further the interests of a $2 billion cocaine trafficking enterprise based in Cali, Colombia.

Since the unusual indictment, defense attorneys throughout the nation have voiced their concern that the charges represent an overzealous attempt by the Justice Department to use its most intimidating legal weapons against lawyers who represent unpopular defendants.

But the picture of Abbell that emerges from hundreds of pages of court transcripts and documents in a New York civil trial, together with the allegations in the indictment, is one of a lawyer who ventured beyond the traditional bounds of criminal defense during his alleged efforts to protect the business and legal interests of Cali cartel kingpins Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and Jose Santacruz Londono.

On June 8 an indictment was unsealed in New York that charged Santacruz and three of his associates with laundering cartel money. The indictment refers to the same funds that Abbell and two other lawyers, who were also named in the Miami indictment, unsuccessfully sought to get released from government forfeiture in 1992."

Earl Silbert, an attorney for Abbell, has said that Abbell throughout his career "made every effort to assure that his conduct has fully complied with all the ethical and legal obligations and requirements." Abbell is scheduled to be arraigned in Miami on Tuesday.

The story of Abbell's journey from a respected position in the federal bar to his present status as another Miami drug defendant has several turning points. Between October 1984, when Abbell left the Justice Department, and September 1994 when federal agents searched his private law office, Abbell played an increasingly significant role in the cartel's legal affairs at a time when investigations of the Cali cartel were gaining momentum worldwide.

Six months after Abbell left the department, he was retained by Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, who along with Santacruz is considered the co-founder of the Cali cartel. At the Kaplan, Russin firm, Abbell worked to help Rodriguez, who had been arrested in Spain, fight extradition to the United States and eventually secure a return to Colombia.

The leadership of the Cali cartel was certainly no mystery to Abbell. At Justice, he had directed the Office of International Affairs at a time when the Department was accelerating its pursuit of international drug traffickers. In that capacity, he signed a 1981 letter asking the Swiss government to provide bank records from accounts controlled by Santacruz, which he said were used to launder drug profits. But in 1982, another lawyer was named to replace Abbell as head of the international affairs office, a move that left him disappointed. On Oct. 1, 1984, he resigned from Justice after 17 years.

At the Kaplan, Russin firm, he worked on several matters of interest to the cartel. But when controversy erupted in October 1989 over his cartel representation, he branched off to help form a new Washington firm, Ristau & Abbell.

That same month, some 3,900 miles away in Luxembourg, an investigation was beginning of Franklin Jurado Rodriguez, a Harvard-trained Colombian economist. Alerted by a tip from U. S. Customs that Jurado was a money launderer, Luxembourg authorities wiretapped his phones and fax machine and intercepted a conversation with Santacruz and a fax regarding Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela. Ultimately, Jurado and two accomplices were arrested in June 1990 in what was one of the largest drug money laundering cases ever brought in Europe. Authorities seized $46 million from 140 related bank accounts in Europe and Panama.

In the following days, U.S. authorities seized funds in several New York bank accounts allegedly controlled by the cartel, including $3.4 million held by a Panamanian company, Siracusa Trading Corp. DEA agents asserted that Santacruz used Siracusa to transfer drug money between bank accounts.

The funds' seizure allegedly brought Abbell into a more active and commanding role in the cartel's legal affairs.

It began, according to allegations in last week's Miami indictment, with a meeting in late 1990 in Cali at the home of cartel kingpin Miguel Rodriguez, brother of Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. Abbell was accompanied by Donald Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor from Miami and Francisco Laguna, a Colombian who was licensed to practice law in Virginia. They were allegedly joined by Jose Santacruz Londono.

There was pressing legal business to discuss: Luxembourg authorities had arrested three of Santacruz's key money launderers; the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn also was moving ahead with a criminal money laundering case against Santacruz and three men.

At the meeting, the indictment alleges, "Santacruz Londono retained Abbell, who in turn brought in Ferguson to assist him, to coordinate Santacruz Londono's defense . . . in the Eastern District of New York, Luxembourg and . . . locations throughout the world."

(This contention is in dispute. In December 1994 responses to The Washington Post, Silbert, a lawyer for Ristau & Abbell, said, "Mr. Abbell has never represented Santacruz in relation to any matter pending in the Eastern District of New York.")

In another meeting in Cali, according to the indictment, Miguel Rodriguez discussed with Abbell and Ferguson his "retention of Abbell for $60,000 to represent Rodriguez Orejuela and his interests in the United States" and in early 1991 wired Abbell his fee.

Silbert said in December that, "Mr. Abbell has never had a general retainer agreement with either Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela or his brother Miguel . . . but has only been retained with respect to specific matters."

Abbell opened his new law firm and in January 1991, hired Laguna as an associate.

On Feb. 7, 1991, according to the indictment, Abbell sent Laguna to Cali to "gather all necessary documentation" needed to seek release of the $3.4 million the government had seized from the Siracusa accounts.

To file a civil claim against the government for the release of the funds, the lawyers needed evidence that the money came from legitimate sources. Laguna and Abbell were provided with a "set of falsified documents from an economist/accountant working for Jose Santacruz Londono purporting to describe legitimate sources of seized money" from a textile factory, a cattle farm and a sugar plantation, the indictment said.

When Abbell saw the documents, the indictment alleges, he objected to the quality of the fabrication. He complained to Laguna "about the obvious falsity of the initial set of documents," according to the indictment, and demanded they be revised "so that the falsity was not obvious."

Laguna returned to Colombia, explained the problem to Santacruz and his accountant, and was provided with a "completely new set of falsified documents," the indictment said.

On March 9, 1991, these were presented to Abbell, the indictment alleged, and he directed they be filed as evidence in the civil suit. The essence of the claim was that the $3.4 million was not owned by Santacruz, but belonged to Siracusa, Santacruz's wife, Amparo, and her mother.

At trial the government countered with testimony by a DEA financial analyst that Siracusa was a money laundering front and with documents showing Amparo and her mother were not owners of record and that Siracusa chiefly moved money between accounts in nine different banks. During the litigation, Abbell and Ferguson elicited reams of testimony about how the DEA had pursued Santacruz and what it had learned.

Meanwhile, the parallel criminal case against Santacruz was pending in Brooklyn and, in November 1991, the Luxembourg criminal case against Jurado went to trial. DEA agents testified that Santacruz was a Cali cartel leader who made extensive use of the international banking system.

During the proceedings, Abbell and Laguna sat in the courtroom audience. They had "selected trial counsel . . . and worked with trial counsel in obtaining and presenting evidence in the trials in Luxembourg and the Eastern District of New York," Silbert said.

Following the 1992 trial, the jury and judge rejected the claims argued by Abbell and Ferguson. "Most of the funds seized and forfeited are the proceeds of a well-organized multinational organization based in the city of Cali, Colombia, and led by a fugitive named Jose Santacruz Londono," said a written opinion by U. S. District Court Jack B. Weinstein, who declared: "The evidence of drug tainting was overwhelming."

Believing that Abbell, Ferguson and Laguna had virtually no credible evidence to support the claim, the prosecutors and agents involved suspected that the Siracusa litigation was being used to determine what evidence the government had against Santacruz in the pending criminal cases. The claim gave them a chance, for instance, to grill a former Santacruz lieutenant and government witness who said he transported suitcases of cash to the cartel's bank in Panama.

"From our standpoint we believe that one of their primary objectives in the litigation was not just to get the money back, but to gather intelligence information about what law enforcement agencies had on the Cali cartel members," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur Hui.

Roy Black, another attorney for Abbell, said the allegation that Abbell filed suit just to determine what investigators knew about Cali cartel members "is simply not true." "It was not a rehearsal of the government's criminal case against Santacruz Londono," he said. CAPTION: MICHAEL ABBELL.