Haiti

Haitian-American businessmen convicted of port bribery scheme get new trial

Two Haitian-American businessmen convicted of conspiring to pay millions of dollars in bribes to Haitian government officials, including the aide to a prime minister, for a northwest Haiti port will be getting a new trial.

Dr. Joseph Baptiste, a Maryland dentist and retired Haitian-American U.S. Army colonel, and Roger Richard Boncy, a former Haitian ambassador-at-large, were found guilty in June by a Boston federal jury of an $84 million Haiti port bribery scheme. Jurors convicted both men of conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Travel Act. Baptiste was also convicted of conspiracy to commit money laundering and an additional Travel Act violation, while Boncy was cleared of the two counts.

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Prior to his sentencing, Baptiste brought in a new attorney to review his case. Both he and Boncy eventually sought acquittals, or at the very least a new trial, based on the argument that Baptiste received ineffective counsel from his defense lawyer, Donald LaRoche. Massachusetts U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs agreed to a new trial.

It is rare for a federal trial judge to overturn a jury’s conviction and order a new trial because a defendant received ineffective assistance from his lawyer.

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In her ruling, Burroughs said LaRoche’s “lack of preparation impeded his ability to diligently defend” Baptiste, the founder and chairman of the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians (NOAH) and a go-to person for the State Department on Haiti before his legal troubles. She also noted that during the trial, LaRoche called no witnesses or experts to defend Baptiste, and he only cross-examined two of the government’s six witnesses.

LaRoche, instead, relied on Boncy’s defense counsel — Jed Dwyer — the court said, to conduct cross-examinations of witnesses, even though Dwyer’s trial strategy involved portraying Baptiste as the primary driver of the alleged conspiracy.

“[I]n my opinion there were instances where Mr. Dwyer was doing a great job in terms of what he was doing with the case,” LaRoche testified. “And so I chose not to jump up and object under the impression, and basically what I was seeing, that Mr. Dwyer was already in that area, so I elected not to sort of beat the horse.”

Prosecutors had accused both men of conspiring to bribe high-level Haitian officials in order to develop the $84 million port project in Mȏle St. Nicolas, in northwest Haiti. As evidence, the government presented recordings, including that of a meeting in a Boston-area hotel. Prosecutors said Boncy and Baptiste told undercover agents that, in order to secure Haitian government approval, they would funnel the bribes to Haitian officials through Baptiste’s charity, NOAH.

The Massachusetts district court said LaRoche admitted that he was unable to open the government’s evidence prior to the trial, and he failed to sit down with Baptiste to review the evidence. A friend of Baptiste, a lawyer, testified that he had to help LaRoche write the opening statement, and ultimately most of the closing argument.

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At a Jan. 14 hearing, LaRoche told the court that Baptiste’s two-week trial was his ‘first actual full-blown trial.’ “

“The errors, omissions, and general lack of diligence outlined ... demonstrate that LaRoche failed to provide effective assistance to” Baptiste, the court wrote.

Baptiste’s new attorney, Daniel Marx of Fick & Marx LLP, said he is grateful that the judge recognized he did not get a fair trial and ordered a new one.

“In fact, Dr. Baptiste never should have been prosecuted in the first place, much less convicted of any crimes. He never paid a single dollar in bribes to anyone in Haiti. Dr. Baptiste only sought to encourage development in a poor country that he cares deeply about,” Marx said.

Like Baptiste, Boncy also asked the court to scrap his conviction based on LaRoche’s ineffective assistance, which he said hindered his own defense. The court agreed to a new trial for Boncy, saying that “LaRoche’s deficient representation resulted in Defendant Boncy’s counsel having to play an outsized role at trial rather than pursue his preferred defense strategy for his own client.”

Rather than agree to a separate trial for Boncy on the one count he was convicted on, however, the district court ruled they should be retried together.

“I am extremely excited and happy with the news, which reinforces the importance that every defendant is entitled to justice and fairness,” Dwyer said. “Now, with the judge’s decision, Mr. Boncy looks forward to putting this matter behind him.”

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