Robert Simels spent years cultivating an image as a hard-charging defense attorney with a client list that included drug lords, professional athletes and a mobster immortalized in the movie "Goodfellas."
In a Brooklyn courtroom this week, the Manhattan lawyer has found himself in an unusual role-reversal. He's on the witness stand, fighting federal charges that he plotted with a notorious South American businessman to silence witnesses with money or, if necessary, by force.
Jurors at the witness tampering trial have heard secretly recorded tapes in which Simels muses about needing to "eliminate" or "neutralize" key government witnesses. Simels insists he wasn't talking about using violence.
"I didn't think I was sanctioning harm. I didn't think I was suggesting harm," he said in testimony that began Tuesday and was to continue Wednesday.
Simels, 62, has been a fixture in New York courthouses for decades. He began his career as a special prosecutor in police and political corruption cases in the 1970s and later pursued his criminal defense practice.
His firm's Web site touts Simels as "the Rolls Royce of litigators." It also notes that he's represented Henry Hill, whose exploits were the basis of the 1990 Martin Scorsese mob film
"Goodfellas," Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, a legendary gang leader accused of funneling drug money into rap music label Murder Inc., and two former New York Jets -- Ken O'Brien and Mark Gastineau -- who had brushes with the law.
In 2006, Simels was hired by another colorful client: Shaheed "Roger" Khan.
Before his arrest and extradition to Brooklyn to face federal drug charges, Khan was one of the richest people in Guyana, controlling businesses that ranged from housing developments and discos to carpet cleaning. But U.S. authorities alleged that his wealth also came from smuggling major amounts of cocaine into the United States under the protection the Phantom Squad _ a violent paramilitary group that has been accused in as many as 200 killings in Guyana.
In his testimony, Simels described putting in long hours building a defense case for Khan. He said he even made three trip to Guyana and hired private investigators to dig up dirt on drug dealers-turned-government witnesses who framed his client, who he described as a "hero'' in his homeland.
Last year, as the Kahn case was nearing trial, Simels began speaking to a former member of the Phantom Squad that he believed could help with the defense. The man turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Administration cooperator wearing a wire.
In one conversation prosecutors say was about bribing an unnamed witness, the cooperator suggested the witness "might suddenly get amnesia" if paid enough money.
"That's a terrible thing, but if it happens, it happens," Simels responded, according to a criminal complaint. Later in the same meeting, the lawyer remarked: "Obviously, any witness you can eliminate is a good thing."
In another discussion about locating relatives of a witness, Simels was recorded telling the cooperator that Khan had instructed, "Don't kill the mother."
Khan "thinks that if the mother gets killed that ... the government will go crazy, and he's probably right."
Simels testified his remarks had been misconstrued. They merely meant he wanted enough ammunition to discredit the witnesses in front of a jury, he said.
"It's part of the vernacular of being a lawyer," Simels said when asked about his use of the word "killed."
Simels never got a chance to defend Khan at trial: He was arrested in September 2008. He pleaded not guilty, was released on $3.5 million bond and hired another high-profile attorney, Gerald Shargel.
Six months later, Khan pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking, weapons charges and witness tampering in a plea deal expected to result in a 15-year sentence.