The leader of a notorious Berkeley real estate dynasty, who in 2001 pled guilty for his role in a family operation to smuggle young Indian girls into the country for sex and cheap labor, has asked a United States District Court judge to rescind his guilty plea just as a civil case against the family is about to commence.
Berkeley real estate mogul Lakireddy Bali Reddy, 66, has filed a writ of habeas corpus asking Judge Claudia Wilken to overturn his plea of guilt to sex, tax and immigration offenses, Wilken revealed Monday at a sentencing hearing for Reddy’s 45-year-old son Prasad Lakireddy.
Saying that she feared the no-prison-time plea agreement for Prasad Lakireddy was too lenient, Wilken postponed a issuing a sentence. Lakireddy was the fifth and final member of the family to plead guilty to reduced charges in the scandal.
While Wilken did not give a timetable for how she planned to respond to Lakireddy Bali Reddy’s request, the judge reset Prasad Lakireddy’s sentencing hearing for April 19 and asked defense attorney Paul Wolf and U.S District Attorney Stephen Corrigan to provide evidence pointing to the appropriateness of the plea bargained sentence.
After the hearing, Lakireddy’s attorney Paul Wolf blasted the postponement. “This is an ambush to keep this man from defending himself at his civil trial,” he said, pointing at Lakireddy. Wolf’s statement implied that so long as Lakireddy faces criminal sentencing, he would probably choose not to testify in the civil trial, where he would risk incriminating himself.
The civil trial played heavily into Monday’s proceedings, said an attorney at the sentencing who declined to be named. Should Judge Wilken throw out the guilty pleas of Lakireddy Bali Reddy—the only member of the family to plead guilty to sexual improprieties—it could improve his standing in the civil trial.
Developments since Reddy pled guilty in 2001 have improved the family’s legal position. Several of the Lakireddy’s chief accusers have alleged that the court translator, Uma Rao, exaggerated their testimony. Some of the victims who might have been key witnesses in criminal trials have subsequently indicated that they would refuse to testify against the family if such trials were now to take place.
Michael Rubin, attorney for the plaintiffs in the civil case, said six of the original plaintiffs have abandoned the suit and have since filed papers to withdraw their statements from the court record.
The Lakireddy saga first surfaced in November, 1999 when 17-year-old Chanti Pratipatti died from carbon monoxide fumes caused by a blocked heating vent in a downtown Berkeley apartment owned by the Lakireddys. Pratipatti’s older sister was also in the apartment, but survived. The parents of Pratipatti and two men, brought to the country illegally, are the only defendants remaining in the civil case, Rubin said.
In November, Prasad Lakireddy entered a guilty plea on one count of conspiracy to employ unauthorized aliens. In return he was to receive five years of probation, one year of house arrest and a $20,000 fine.
Lakireddy’s brother, Vijay, 34, is serving a two-year sentence for pleading guilty to the same crime—a fact that didn’t sit well with Wilken. “I have a concern with the proportionality with respect to this defendant and the sentence imposed on the brother,” she said.
Should Wilken ultimately abide by the plea bargain, Prasad Lakireddy would become the third member of his family to avoid prison time in return for a plea.
Lakireddy’s uncle, Jayprakash Lakireddy, spent one year in a halfway house for conspiring to commit immigration fraud. His aunt, Annapurna Lakireddy, served six months of home detention for the same offense.
Prasad had originally been charged with nine counts, including conspiracy to import aliens for immoral purposes and witness tampering, but the allegations of misconduct against the translator and the refusal of several of the alleged victims to testify damaged the government’s case.
When pressed by Wilken about the perceived leniency of the plea agreement, U.S. District Attorney Stephen Corrigan replied, “What we have to consider is what the government can prove.” Corrigan refused to comment following the hearing.