Chicago (dpa/tca) – A federal judge in New York has scheduled a rare hearing for indicted R&B superstar R. Kelly into whether the attorneys he has elected to defend him at his upcoming racketeering trial have conflicts of interest.
U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly scheduled the hearing after Kelly’s two Chicago-based attorneys abruptly withdrew from the case two months before the blockbuster trial was set to begin in Brooklyn.
At a hearing held by telephone earlier this week, Kelly told the judge he wished to terminate attorneys Steven Greenberg and Michael Leonard. Instead, the singer said he’s opted to go with two other members of the legal team, Thomas Farinella of New York and Nicole Blank Becker of Michigan.
But information has since arisen concerning the backgrounds of Farinella and Becker that has prompted Donnelly to schedule what’s known as a Curcio hearing, where relevant facts are presented to a defendant about an attorney’s potential conflicts of interest so an informed decision can be made about representation.
The judge’s order posted Friday afternoon indicated that the hearing will be held in her courtroom. Leonard said the judge wanted Kelly to be brought to New York so he could attend in person, but the U.S. marshals couldn’t get him there until later in the month, so instead he’ll participate via a video link. The singer has been held in the federal jail in downtown Chicago since his arrest in July 2019.
Whatever potential conflicts prompted the hearing are unclear, as filings have been kept under seal.
Greenberg and Leonard have previously said they had concerns about the backgrounds of Farinella and Becker, neither of whom has ever tried a federal criminal case.
Records show that Farinella, who previously worked as a bankruptcy attorney, had his law license suspended more than a decade ago after he was alleged to have made improper charges to a client’s credit card and neglected “numerous client matters.”
At the time, Farinella argued to stay the proceedings because of a “mental infirmity” that made it impossible to defend himself against the accusations. Farinella’s psychiatrist testified that Farinella “shuts down during stressful situations he is not able to adequately contribute to his defense or other legal processes,” according to a 2011 ruling by the New York Supreme Court.
Farinella and Becker could not immediately be reached for comment.
Kelly, 54, is set to go to trial August 9 in Brooklyn on racketeering charges alleging he ran a criminal enterprise that recruited women and underage girls for illegal sexual contact, then isolated and threatened them to keep them under control.
Preparations are underway for the trial, which has been delayed several times by the pandemic and will attract worldwide attention. Jury questionnaires are set to go out to a pool of hundreds of potential jurors next month, and prosecutors said Kelly will be moved in advance to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York.
In addition to the much-delayed proceedings in Brooklyn, Kelly is set for trial in September in Chicago’s federal court. He is charged here with numerous sex abuse-related counts, including allegations he conspired with two former employees to rig his 2008 child pornography trial in Cook County by paying off witnesses and victims to change their stories.
Other indictments alleging sexual abuse by Kelly brought in Cook County in February 2019 have yet to be scheduled for trial.
Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune