(CNN)As R. Kelly shuffles his legal team two months ahead of trial, a federal judge is weighing potential conflicts involving one of his remaining attorney's past interactions with potential witnesses who may be involved in the trial.
Conflicts involving an R. Kelly lawyer arise ahead of his trial
Kelly is awaiting US District Judge Ann Donnelly's decision on a request from two of Kelly's long-time Chicago-based attorneys, Steve Greenberg and Michael Leonard, to withdraw from the case. Kelly's remaining attorneys, Thomas Farinella and Nicole Blank Becker, said in court last week that the singer had terminated Greenberg and Leonard. Donnelly in court asked to hear about concerns about alleged conflicts Becker may have before approving Greenberg and Leonard's request to leave the case.
Becker officially became one of Kelly's attorneys of record for his Brooklyn federal racketeering case on April 19, but has represented him in other cases in Illinois, and appeared in court in Brooklyn at his initial appearance in July of 2019.
Becker was captured by cameras, including by CNN-affiliate WLS, at court in 2019 walking and talking with two women who identified themselves as girlfriends of Kelly at the time. An attorney who represented the women at one time said in a declaration filed by Greenberg and Leonard that was read in court Thursday, that Becker gave "legal advice" to the women, one of whom began cooperating with prosecutors in early 2020 after severing ties with Kelly. Becker denied in court that she gave the women legal advice.
Prosecutors in the hearing raised another allegation of a potential conflict by Kelly's legal team: that an attorney helped facilitate payments to one of the women who Kelly lived with before his arrest and who may testify in his defense at trial.
Federal prosecutor Maria Cruz Melendez, of the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, voiced concerns over the alleged payments, saying a jury may be misled into thinking that the payments incentivized the woman to testify for the defense. Becker denied ever facilitating payments to the woman on Kelly's behalf.
Donnelly said she would not discuss another alleged conflict involving Becker that was raised by prosecutors in a sealed letter to the court. Sources confirmed to CNN the matter deals with an allegation that Becker was connected to an effort to pay to silence a victim who is cooperating with the government. CNN has reached out to Becker for comment on the claim.
The allegations arise from a criminal complaint filed in August, involving an associate of Kelly's named Richard Arline. Arline was accused of attempting to bribe Kelly's former girlfriend after she began cooperating with prosecutors in early 2020. Arline pleaded guilty in February to one count of bribery and is expected to be sentenced at a later date.
A source with direct knowledge of the matter says the allegation that Becker was in any way involved in Arline's attempted bribe payment is "completely untrue."
According to a complaint filed in August against Arline, investigators gained the cooperation of a victim of Kelly, who the singer allegedly had a sexual relationship with when she was 17 years old. The woman is simply referred to as "Jane Doe" in the complaint.
The complaint states that that Jane Doe, at the direction of law enforcement, took part in calls in 2020 with Arline and others that law enforcement listened to.
In a May 20, 2020 three-way call, Arline allegedly discussed paying a victim of R. Kelly $500,000 "in exchange for not continuing to cooperate with the government," the complaint states.
Multiple people are mentioned anonymously in the complaint, including one who is described as "an attorney who has represented Kelly" but didn't represent him in the Brooklyn federal case at the time of the filing in August, whom multiple sources confirmed to CNN is Becker.
According to the complaint, investigators believed Arline was in contact with the attorney and that when he told the Jane Doe witness that people claimed "you got ... some videos or some iPads" and that "your story they just want that to disappear" -- that he was referring to one of the associates of Kelly, which may have included Becker. The complaint alleges that Arline meant that one or all of the associates "told him that Jane Doe had access to electronic evidence that could be used against Kelly and that they wanted Jane Doe to not tell her version of events regarding her relationship with Kelly." CNN has reached out to an attorney for Arline for comment.
But the complaint also alleges that Arline later told the Jane Doe witness that, when the same attorney was asked about making a payment, the attorney told him, "We ain't doing that," and "knocked [the idea] down right away."
The complaint further states that "it remains unclear whether Kelly (and the associates including the attorney) implicitly or explicitly authorized Arline to negotiate a bribe payment on behalf of Kelly," and that, as of the filing in August, the Jane Doe witness did not receive any money from Arline.
The hearing Thursday was a rare hearing meant to address any potential conflicts attorneys involved in the case may have, and Donnelly said at the hearing that she would like for Kelly to be brought to New York to participate in another conflict-related hearing in-person. This was the first in-person hearing in Kelly's Brooklyn case since the pandemic forced court operations to shift to being conducted remotely. Kelly appeared by video conference from the Chicago federal detention center where he is being held ahead of trial.