OAKLAND – Tuesday’s pre-trial hearing in federal court for brothers Vijay and Prasad Lakireddy centered on one disputed point: does the defense have the right to subpoena documents that would show how much time a certain translator/ interviewer spent with the witnesses to the Lakireddys’ alleged misdeeds?
After much debate, Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong delayed ruling on the question of whether to quash the subpoenas, asking both sides to submit further written arguments.
The pair, adult sons of Lakireddy Bali Reddy – a wealthy Berkeley landlord now serving an eight-year jail sentence for immigration fraud, transporting minors for sex and submitting a false tax return – face charges of helping their father perpetrate his crimes.
In the courtroom Tuesday, arguments flew back and forth between attorneys for the plaintiffs and defense, the latter of whom wanted the plaintiffs – the U.S. government – and other entities, to turn over documents related to the work of translator/ interviewer Uma Rao, hired by the government and also by other organizations involved in the case.
Rao’s job was to interview non-English-speaking witnesses in Telugu and to translate for the government, police and victim advocates. But she did more. All parties agreed the translator became personally involved and persuaded witnesses to embellish their stories.
What the defense lawyers want, is for the government and several organizations to give them documentation on how many times and for how long groups used the translator’s services. The groups include Narika, a Berkeley agency that supports South Asian women, which advocated for the victim/ witnesses, and the Berkeley Police Department, which interviewed the witnesses.
Attorneys for the Lakireddy brothers are hoping to eventually show a jury that part of the weakness in the government’s case is related to the extent to which translator Rao spent time with the witnesses.
Further, they say that the government’s work on the case can be shown to be inadequate because the government allowed an interviewer access to “impressionable, vulnerable witnesses” when it should have been able to find more responsible people to fulfill this function. The government gave “massive access to witnesses,” Cotsirilos said. “(Rao was) somebody who counseled these witnesses to lie.”
“This is the stuff of a slipshod investigation,” Cotsirilos said. “You cannot trust this investigation.”
Part of the plaintiffs’ argument rests on the assumption that the witnesses were under tight government control. “These witnesses are in INS control and custody. I would not expect time and time again for somebody to tell them to lie.”
Hammering his point home, Cotsirilos repeated his point. “It is incumbent on the government to (use) a person who is professional and trained. You can’t let them be interviewed by any old person.”
Judge Armstrong appeared to grow weary of the argument. “You keep saying that over and over,” she said. “I wonder if you don’t think it’s (convincing.)” She added that she didn’t think the court had a list of Telugu interpreters.
The notion that the witnesses were under government control – even when they were interviewed by Rao acting under the auspices of a different agency – is particularly important to the plaintiffs. “That makes third party subpoenas relevant,” Cotsirilos said.
Arguing for the groups who received subpoenas, ACLU attorney L. Jay Kuo was equally combative, characterizing Cotsirilos’ request for information “a fishing expedition.” He reminded the court that the government had already obtained permission to reinterview the witnesses.
He further challenged the plaintiff’s contention that the witnesses were under continuous government scrutiny, arguing rather, that they had been placed in “safe houses” where every person who goes in and out was not examined.
“The question is whether the subpoena is necessary,” Armstrong Brown said. Attorneys will file additional briefs with the court by Dec. 4 and the judge will rule on whether to quash the subpoenas some time after that.