Friday, November 30, 2007

From Dungeon To Talk Show Host

by Michael Brown. 28 May 1998.

A US District Judge has sentenced Lester K. Coleman, a witness in the Lockerbie disaster civil case, to time served and a $30,000 fine for five counts of perjury based on an affidavit he gave in the Pan Am case. Last week, Coleman, now a talk show host on WLXG in Lexington, Kentucky, retaliated with a $6.5 million damages lawsuit against the US prison service for his treatment during his time in jail awaiting trial.

Coleman had filed an affidavit in 1991 after fleeing to Sweden where he had been granted sanctuary on humanitarian grounds. He voluntarily returned to the US in 1996 and was immediately taken into custody. He is the only person in US legal history to be charged with perjury over an affidavit filed in a civil case.

Judge Thomas C. Platt had warned Coleman during sentencing : "If I hear you attacking the Government on your radio show, I shall take that very very seriously". Judge Platt also barred Coleman from speaking about his case on the radio programme. Coleman said after the sentencing : "Today was another episode in the saga of a five-year-old perjury case, based on a sever-year-old civil affidavit, over a ten-year-old air disaster. No American can ever give up free speech to preserve a judge's order."

Judge Platt said from the bench : "I want to send to send a message to all those in the beltway in Washington that perjury in a civil case is prosecuted, as this case shows." (Platt, a Nixon appointee, may have been challenging Pres. Clinton's supporters who claimed that perjury in a civil case is never prosecuted.)

Coleman, a former agent with the Defence Intelligence Agency, provoked controversy in the US and UK by claiming in 1992 that the Lockerbie tragedy, in which 270 people died, was caused by an American drug sting operation which went wrong. (Transcript of Coleman affidavit posted below this article.)

Coleman claimed that the DEA had been operating a number of Beirut-based sting operations, involving more than 130 paid informants, which allowed controlled deliveries of heroin from Lebanon to US airports. The goal was to arrest US-based drug gangs. Several informants had been given CIA 'asset' status in 1987 to lure a suspected terrorist out of Beirut aboard a yatch off the coast of Cyprus. The operation was codenamed Goldenrod.

[ Further reading on this particular operation, and an admission by the DEA, in court, that the drug sting was indeed operational, is detailed in this article - ]

This operation was co-ordinated by several key figures subsequently drafted in to deal with the bombing of Flight 103. Oliver 'Buck' Revel, Deputy Director of FBI, Vincent Cannistraro of the CIA's Rome Station and Michael T Hurley, the DEA attaché in Cyprus. Coleman suspected that it was Lebanese drug informants, adopted as CIA assets for the drug operation, who eventually provided Syria with the intelligence used to place the bomb aboard Pan Am 103.

Coleman claimed the DEA's drug operation had been infiltrated by Iranian financed and Syrian backed PLFP-GC, who had been ordered to avenge the shootdown by the US navy of a commercial Iranian flight (Iran Air 655) in July 1988, killing 290 people. Instead of placing the usual heroin on the flight, it was substituted for a suitcase containing explosives.

Coleman made the allegations in an affidavit to Pan Am during the airline's investigation into the tragedy. Pan Am had filed notice of legal action against the Government. Government attorneys balked at turning over classified documents claiming National Security reasons. The case was dismissed by then district Judge Thomas Platt in the Eastern District of New York for lack of evidence.

It was not until Coleman reiterated his allegations in a book, some two and a half years later, that the US government responded by accusing him of perjury. He became the first ever person to be charged with perjury over statements given in an affidavit in a civil case.

At the time "Trail of the Octopus" was published, Coleman and his family were already in Sweden having successfully applied for asylum. Coleman already had had the feeling that he had become a state target. His supporters claim that the charge of perjury was brought because he had dared to contradict the official US view that Libya was responsible for the bombing.

After six years in exile, in failing health and with the US pressing for his deportation, Coleman voluntarily returned home on 11 October 1996. He was held for five months, without bail, while a cancerous tumour the size of a golf ball, grew on his collar bone. Coleman repeatedly told his public defender, Abraham Clott, he needed medical care, but it was not until Vivian Shevitz agreed to take his case without fee that something was done.

Shevitz wrote to the Warden at Metropolitan Detention Centre on 13 January 1997, three months after Coleman's arrival : "I wrote on January 7th to suggest the need for immediate medical treatment for pre-trail detainee Lester K. Coleman. I visited Mr.Coleman yesterday and learned essentially nothing has been done. A painful growth on his chest is still apparently oozing. His t-shirt is covered with blood. Mr Coleman advised me that he was told on 23 December that it would take about two weeks for an operation. It has been longer than that and there is a need."

On January 21, Coleman was operated upon, returning the same day to jail. For 16 days, he received no further medical attention or assistance, and his wound became seriously infected. Shevitz wrote numerous letters to the court. Coleman was finally returned to hospital and Shevitz describes the visit in a letter : "It was not until Thursday 6 February that Mr Coleman was taken to see Dr Beaton at Downtown Hospital. While Dr Beaton refused to tell me directly about his reaction to Mr Coleman's condition, the two Special Deputy Marshals who accompanied Mr Coleman were willing to be forthcoming. (Despite their expressed
knowledge that the system expected their silence.)

Own Flynn is a Special Deputy Marshal who kindly spoke to me on the telephone on 7 February. He told me that when in the examination room with Mr Coleman, Dr Beaton, when first looking at the wound, said in substance :"Oh my God, look at this, this is criminal. This is appalling."

The doctor had warned Mr Coleman that, even that the wound was infected, he would have to remove the stitches from the original operation, and that would be painful.

Dr Beaton wrote : "This frankly is an outrage, as it relates to a man who is charged with no more than perjury in an affidavit in a civil case! Whether he 'jumped bail' or not in the past or another charge, hardly smacks of Jack the Ripper : he voluntarily returned and has no money, nor energy to go anywhere. He is sick with cancer and needs medical care and rest. He needs also to prepare his case at the same time."

After Shevitz's letter to the court charging the Justice department with malpractice and cruelty, Coleman was sent to suburban hospital to recover. It took round the clock treatment for 11 days to clear up the infection. While he was there he was seen by resident psychiatrist, Harvey Berman, clinical professor at New York Medical College.

Dr Berman later wrote to the court on 11 September 1997 : "Mr Lester Coleman is a patient under my care. He has been in treatment with me since 28 February. His diagnosis is major depression. His symptoms include sad moods, insomnia, lethargy, difficulty in concentrating, ruminations of hopelessness, frequent thoughts of death and nightmares of his time at the MDC earlier this year where he received sub-standard medical care. I believe the depression was
precipitated by the way he was treated there."

Dr Jim Swire, spokesman for the British relatives of the Lockerbie victims said he was disturbed at how the US authorities were treating Coleman. Swire wrote "The gross maltreatment of Coleman by the American authorities appears to fit a pattern of victimisation of people who challenge the official version that Libya was solely to blame for Lockerbie."

Shevitz's campaign to obtain Coleman's release on bail finally bore fruit when Assistant Attorney Alan Vickery agreed on 27 March 1998 that Coleman could be released into the custody of his daughter, living upstate New York. The terms included house arrest, wearing an electronic bracelet (tag), with no travel except to see a doctor and to court.

For the next six months Coleman remained confined, but it remained a level up from the ordeal at MDC. He had still not seen the family that he had left behind at Atlanta Airport over a year before.

Coleman and Shevitz began preparing to take on the Government, filing a host of discovery requests for classified documents, listed by file number and name. It was obvious from the detailed requests that Coleman's past relationship with US military intelligence was real. Shevitz, still representing Coleman without charge, filed her expenses with the court only to be denied her motion by Judge Platt.

Soon she was out of pocket almost $10,000. Towards the end of the summer, with not one shred of discovery from the Government, Shevitz reluctantly told Coleman she was forced to withdraw. His only alternative was public defender, Abraham Clott, the lawyer who had not even bothered to complain about Coleman's medical treatment for several months.

With Clott back, the case ground to a halt. Clott and his boss, Attorney-in-Charge, Thomas J Cancannon visited Coleman at his daughter's home on August 28 1998. From illness and prescribed drugs, Coleman has little recollection of that day, but did have the where-with-all to tape the meeting. Cancannon and Clott advised Coleman he could take advantage of the unusual Rule 11 (1)(e) - Deal, plead guilty and walk free - or continue to fight, be returned to jail and face two or three years litigation before Judge Platt. Even in Coleman's distorted state, the choice was clear. He had had enough.

Still, Coleman wrestled with the decision until the day before he walked into court. Clott called him on September 10. Coleman again recorded the conversation :

Coleman : I might just walk in there and disagree with the whole thing, I don't know, I might just do that.
Clott : If you do that, you'll be remanded and face two to three years....
Coleman : Oh, I don't think this will go away anytime soon...
Clott : Yes it will
Coleman : It will?
Clott : I am sure it will, after tomorrow.

The following morning, on 11 September 1998, advised he would never have his day in court, he stood before Judge Thomas C. Platt, and pleaded guilty to five counts of perjury based on the affidavit he gave in the Pan Am civil case nearly seven years earlier.

Within two days, he was on a plane to Palm Springs, California at the Government's expense, where he was joined by his wife and three children.

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