WELLAND, Ont. - After two trials and having faced the prospect of criminal charges for the past six years, Welland lawyer Jeffrey Root can now concentrate on rebuilding his legal practice following his acquittal late last month.
Root, a 45-year-old former federal prosecutor and criminal defence lawyer who practises in the Niagara region, was acquitted of all charges after a judge found there was no evidence he ever intended to launder dirty money.
Root was charged following an undercover operation by the RCMP that began in September 2002 and concluded in January 2004. The investigation was initially set up to investigate the Niagara chapter of the Hells Angels.
A trial in front of Justice Harrison Arrell in the Superior Court of Justice in Welland began in August and lasted several days.
Root pleaded not guilty to all counts, including conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy to possess illegal proceeds, attempt to launder money, and attempt to possess illegal proceeds.
Much of his defence centred on claims that he maintained contacts with an undercover officer posing as an experienced criminal in order to drum up clients for his practice.
In his reasons for judgment, Arrell said Root was “very stupid and showed poor judgment in the extreme” in meeting with the undercover officer and should have left immediately after learning what he wanted.
But poor judgment and stupidity aren’t proof of intent to commit a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge said in his 11-page written decision.
“As case law has stated repeatedly, that if at the end of the case, based on all of the evidence or lack of evidence, the trier of fact is not sure that the accused committed the offences for which he is charged, then he must be found not guilty,” Arrell wrote.
“I am not sure and as such I have reasonable doubt, and Mr. Root therefore must be acquitted of all charges.”
In reviewing the facts of the case, the judge noted that Ron Nicholson, an RCMP officer for more 30 years who’s now retired, was the undercover officer in the investigation.
He went by the name of Paul Cox and portrayed himself to be an experienced criminal who was high up in an illegal organization that operated a trust company in southern Florida.
The company had clients in Canada who wanted the proceeds of their business, which involved trafficking in cocaine, transferred to it. Cox was in Canada to arrange the transfers, court heard.
The RCMP also worked with an operative who assumed the name of James Kelly. In the spring of 2002, Kelly opened a store called Shamrock EEzy Grow Hydroponics Ltd., in Niagara Falls. It sold equipment for grow operations on premises owned by George Radojcic, a former justice of the peace.
According to the testimony, a money-counting machine was left on the store counter as a prop. During a meeting between Cox and Radojcic, Cox made it clear that he was a criminal involved in laundering proceeds from drug trafficking, court heard.
In turn, Radojcic said he knew some people who could probably use some help from Cox. At one point, Radojcic mentioned he knew a lawyer from a solid law firm who had done money movements in the past. No names were mentioned.
Eventually, Radojcic introduced Cox to Root at a restaurant in Niagara Falls. Cox was wearing a body pack, and the conversation was recorded. Radojcic left the meeting shortly after making the introductions.
According to the judge, the recordings confirm Cox made it known he was a criminal who was high up in the food chain and was looking to move money obtained from the sale of drugs. The money was to go to a bank in the United States from Canada, court heard.
While the two men met again on May 5 and June 5, 2003, there was a period of time when Root didn’t return phone calls from Cox.
In the meantime, the undercover officer orchestrated a chance meeting at the St. Catharines, Ont., courthouse. According to Arrell, the meeting was brief and it was clear from the conversation and Root’s avoidance of Cox during the previous five months that the lawyer was trying to brush him off.
The two men had several short phone conversations and another meeting in December, but all contact ended on Jan. 31, 2004. No funds ever exchanged hands.
The judge said the totality of the Crown’s evidence was based on the testimony of the undercover officer and several recorded conversations he made during the meetings and phone calls.
The Crown took the position that Root’s testimony shouldn’t be believed due to its many inconsistencies and that he wasn’t pretending and did in fact intend to launder money once the fee was confirmed.
But the defence argued Root was leading on a potential source of legitimate business for a criminal lawyer. He argued Root stayed in contact with Cox in the hopes he might pick up some legal work if he or some of the people he knew were charged and needed a lawyer.
Arrell, meanwhile, noted Root gave a very different interpretation of the conversations and meetings. He’s primarily a criminal lawyer and like many in private practice was always looking for new work.
At the time, he had lost the federal prosecution work he had been doing for six or seven years and wanted to build up his criminal defence practice as a result.
Root, in fact, said he had never met anyone like Cox and found him charming and likeable. He thought Cox had many criminal contacts and the potential to send legitimate work to him, according to the testimony.
Root also testified he lied to Cox about his knowledge of money laundering and his experience doing it and in his assertions that he had partners to assist him.
Root noted he always gave himself a way out by saying he had partners whom he would have to run things by. In doing so, he’d always advise that they never agreed with the rates, amounts or methodology.
According to Arrell, Root gave his evidence in a straightforward and clear manner. “In my view, his evidence was not compromised to any significant extent,” he said.
Root was also questioned at length about the loss of his prosecution work and billings as well as difficulties with his practice in an attempt to show a motive.
But the judge said the evidence showed Root had no discernable motive to do what the Crown alleged. Root is happily married with two young children, was at an established law firm, and was active in local charities and sports, he noted.
His father was a very well-respected Crown, and Root had no financial problems given that his house was paid for and his billings and draw from the firm were more than reasonable.
Following the ruling, Root was congratulated by members of his immediate family and friends who were sitting in the courtroom.
This was his second trial. After being charged with a number of offences in March 2004, all of those charges were discharged after a preliminary hearing. The Crown then preferred a direct indictment on the same charges, which meant the case went straight to trial.
In 2006, a trial took place in front of Justice Linda Templeton, who found Root not guilty of five charges that included money laundering. She found there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Root.
For more on this story, see "Former Crown charged with conspiracy awaiting his fate."