By jumping on the bus, prisoners earn time off sentences at others expense
November 30, 1998
The business served a small but eager clientele.
From an office in Atlanta, Kevin Pappas, a former drug smuggler, sold prisoners confidential information gleaned from the files of federal law enforcement officers or, in some instances, from the case files of other convicts.
By memorizing confidential data from those files, the prisoners could testify to events that only an insider might know and help prosecutors win an indictment or a conviction.
Well-heeled prisoners paid Pappas as much as $225,000 for the confidential files, and in exchange for their testimony, prosecutors would ask judges to reduce the prison terms of these new-found witnesses.
Pappas and Robert Fierer, an Atlanta lawyer, called their company Conviction Consultants Inc., but a group of defense lawyers in Georgia had another name for it: "Rent-a-rat."
Federal agents shut down the operation last year. Pappas and Fierer pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and income tax evasion in connection with the scheme. Pappas struck a deal and became a witness for the government against his former partner. He has not been sentenced, but Fierer was given a 21/2-year term in prison. So far, federal authorities havent explained how Pappas gained access to confidential government files.
Pappas and Fierer arent alone. A two-year Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation found that inmates in federal prisons routinely buy, sell, steal and concoct testimony then share their perjury with federal authorities in exchange for a reduction in their sentences.
Often, these inmates testify against people theyve never met. They corroborate crimes theyve never witnessed. Prosecutors win cases. Convicts win early freedom. The accused loses.
Federal agents and prosecutors have been accused of helping move the scheme along by providing convicts some of the information.
For years, inmates have warned federal authorities about the practice. One inmate, Ramon Castellanos, offered to go undercover to trap those who buy and sell testimony.
Another, Ramiro Molina, wrote the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Attorney General Janet Reno and even President Clinton. "Whats become of innocent until proven guilty?" Molina wondered in one of those letters. "What has happened to the truth in justice? What are we doing with the law, bending it to be convenient and to whatever advantage necessary?"
In the meantime, testimony continues to be bought, sold, stolen. In South Florida, the scam has become so prevalent that prisoners there have crafted a name for it: "Montate en la guagua."
"Get on the bus," or, as inmates call it, "jump on the bus."
When Molina was arrested for his role in a major drug-smuggling operation between Colombia and South Florida, he figured he had one way out: cooperate with the U.S. government.
Long before anyone on the outside knew he had been arrested, he asked to speak with federal agents and prosecutors. Authorities put him in touch with Special Agent Henry Cuervo of the DEA, and Molina implicated others in the drug-smuggling ring. For his cooperation, Molinas sentence was dramatically reduced; even though he faced a life term, he ended up being sentenced to about eight years.
His statements were true, and prosecutors embraced them as such, Molina said.
But while in prison, Molina saw firsthand how some convicts make a living off perjured testimony, and he became the first inmate to expose the scheme in open court.
Neither the U.S. Attorney General nor federal prosecutors answered written questions about the "jump on the bus" scheme for this story.
Molina described how individuals had paid for information so they could "jump on the bus" and testify in the drug case against Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and against two other accused cocaine smugglers, Salvatore Magluta and Willy Falcone.
In the case involving Magluta and Falcon, the largest federal cocaine case ever tried, Molina said he was offered the chance to lie for a reduced sentence.
Molina passed, but he later decided if he wanted to get out of jail, he had no choice but to go along with the scheme in another case, he said. That case involved the Mayas drug-smuggling clan of Colombia, one of the largest such organizations ever. This time, an inmate named Hector Lopez was the middle man, Molina said.
"Lopez provided me with vital inside information that came from agent [Henry] Cuervo from DEA files for me to go to the grand jury on the Mayas case," Molina told a judge and others in sworn statements obtained by the Post-Gazette.
"Lopez wrote me a month before in a letter that told me exactly what to say," Molina told federal authorities. He said Lopez also provided the information to an inmate named Francisco Mesa, who eventually testified before the grand jury with the same perjured testimony.
"In July 1994, Francisco Mesa told me that he never knew the Mayas," Molina said. "I can no longer cover up this wrongdoing. . . . It is in my best interest to cooperate in the war against drugs, but two wrongs cant make a right."
Inmate Pedro Diaz Yera corroborated Molinas account. Yera also implicated Lopez and Cuervo, the DEA agent, in letters he wrote to politicians and judges.
As a result of Molinas information, he and Yera met with Nelson Barbosa, a special agent with the FBI. They told Barbosa about what they say was Lopezs and Cuervos role in "jump on the bus" schemes. Both men said Barbosa never contacted them again.
On March 25, 1995, they spoke to another FBI agent, Steven Kling, of Miami. "We told him the same things we had relayed to Agent Barbosa," Molina said. "He told me he would get back in touch with us within two to three days."
That was more than three years ago. The two are still waiting.